Brain and Behavior

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BRAIN AND BEHAVIOR May 2019 Issue 13


Health The Vaping Gun

Research 06

Your Brain on Virtual Reality

Ethics

18

AI: From Science Fiction to Reality

26

Cortical Stack: The Philosopher’s Microchip

28

False Eden (Creative Writing)

30

Undefined (Creative Writing)

08

ROMEO The Frog

20

Immortality: The FInal Frontier

10

system.out. printIn(iHuman)

22

Brazil Goes Retroviral on HIV

12

Turning Up for the Turnover Chain

24

Wintertime SADness

15

Available Positions:

Join Us!

Writer Designer Photographer Copy Editor Business Associate Marketing/ PR Associate Distribution Associate Associate Web Developer/ Designer

Contact us at scientificaeditor@gmail.com to apply.

2 | Brain and Behavior


Cover Illustration by: Sandra Taboada

News

Profiles

Printing the Future of Medicine

32

Cancer’s ImpaCKt

34

Experiencing an “Aha” Moment

36

Breaking Mad

38

Building The Future

40

The Vaping Gun 06

Sahil Verma Breaking Barriers

42

Sita Ramaswamy

In this issue’s feature, The Vaping Gun (p. 6), Christina Paraggio explores the veiled and devastating consequences of vaping, while drawing comparisons between cigarette companies’ ads of the past vaping companies’ modernday marketing tactics.

CONTENTS 3


Core Staff Anuj Shah Shravya Jasti Parv Gondolia Sandra Taboada Leila Thompson Fabiana De Luca Joshua Zahner Corey Fehlberg Trevor Birenbaum

Editor-in-Chief Managing Editor Copy Chief Design Director Art Director Director of Photography Webmaster Director of Finance Distribution Manager

Wil Harris Ryan Steinberg Elisabeth Hofer Sofia Mohammad

Creative Writing Business Manager Director of Public Relations Director of Community Outreach

Roger Williams, M.S. Ed Victoria Pinilla

Editorial Advisor Board of Advisors Liason

Our minds are incredible machines possessed by puzzling creatures. They are continuously molded during our youth but stay impressively agile as we age and develop. Through this issue, we hope to explore just a few of the many puzzling phenomena that arise from the complexity of our brains and behaviors. In this issue’s feature, “The Vaping Gun” (p. 6) Christina Paraggio delves into how young minds can be exploited by the predatory tactics of vaping companies. In “Your Brain on Virtual Reality” (p. 18), Austin Berger explains how VR gives us intuition into our basic senses and their enormous capabilities. Finally, Amirah Rashed explores the myriad of mysteries surrounding insight and its cerebral origins in “Experiencing an Aha Moment” (p. 36). It is an incredible honor to begin serving as this magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, and I can’t wait to continue our journey with an incredible team of writers, artists, and scientists. With every issue, our goal is to make you smile, contemplate, reflect, and above all else, wonder.

The brain is our most complex organ. Within our skull, it is protected by a membrane and is one of the most sensitive and least understood parts of the human body. Our minds are used to control every aspect of who we are as well as how we interact with our environment. As a society, we must understand how the brain functions, not only to fix psychological conditions but also to create and prosper. I’d like to thank Steven Lang for his leadership of this magazine. His “brain and behavior” during his time as Editorin-Chief has ushered in many improvements in the workflow and helped build a team to take our magazine’s design to the next level. I wish him the best as he embarks on his medical career. I look forward to continued work with Anuj Shah in his role as Editor-inChief. This and all our issues are the product of a very talented team of undergraduate students.

Anuj Shah Microbiology and Immunology Class of 2021 Editor-in-Chief, UMiami Scientifica

Roger I. Williams Jr., M.S. Ed. Director, Student Activities Advisor, Microbiology & Immunology Editorial Advisor, UMiami Scientifica

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Scientifica Staff 2019 Board of Advisors Barbara Colonna Ph.D. Senior Lecturer Organic Chemistry Department of Chemistry Richard J. Cote, M.D., FRCPath, FCAP Professor & Joseph R. Coutler Jr. Chair Department of Pathology Professor, Dept. of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Chief of Pathology, Jackson Memorial Hospital Director, Dr. Jonn T. Macdonald Foundation Biochemical Nanotechnology Institute University of Miami Miller School of Medicine Michael S. Gaines, Ph.D. Assistant Provost Undergraduate Research and Community Outreach Professor of Biology Mathias G. Lichtenheld, M.D. Associate Professor of Microbiology & Immunology FBS 3 Coordinator University of Miami Miller School of Medicine Charles Mallery, Ph.D. Associate Professor Biology & Cellular and Molecular Biology Associate Dean April Mann Director of the Writing Center Catherine Newell, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Religion Leticia Oropesa, D.A. Coordinator Department of Mathematics *Eckhard R. Podack, M.D., Ph.D. Professor & Chair Department of Microbiology & Immunology University of Miami Miller School of Medicine Adina Sanchez-Garcia Associate Director of English Composition Senior Lecturer Geoff Sutcliffe, Ph.D. Chair Department of Computer Science Associate Professor of Computer Science Yunqiu (Daniel) Wang, Ph.D. Senior Lecturer Department of Biology * Deceased

SECTION EDITORS ETHICS NEWS RESEARCH HEALTH PROFILES

Trevor Birenbaum Siena Vadakal Alexandria Hawkins Carolina Mallar Carolene Kurien

COPY EDITORS Gaurav Gupta Carolina Mallar Siena Vadakal Avi Botwinick Vince Sferra Giovanna Harrell Sean Walson Greg Zaroogian

DESIGNERS

WRITERS Christina Paraggio Kimberley Rose Grant de la Vasselais Sam Mosle Amirah Rashed Austin Berger Frank Gutierrez Isabella Lopez Adam Arbiser Ingrid Torrens Jasson Makkar Raghuram Reddy Natalia Pluta Jeremy Garg Anastasiya Plotnikova

Lucero Barrantes Sam Mosle Caitlin Smith Isabella Lopez Aaron Dykxhoorn

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-Christina Paraggio

V

APING. WHAT DOES THE WORD bring to mind? Is it parties, sex, and music videos, or lung disease, nicotine and heavy metals? Probably the former, right? With little resistance, the silent danger of vaping has integrated itself into everyday life, and it isn’t hard to understand why. Rappers, moguls and influencers all blatantly flaunt their use of e-cigarettes. Social media assaults us from all angles with advertisements of gorgeous women, successful men, and the elite all linked together by one seemingly harmless hobby. It’s not like they’re smoking cigarettes, right? But here’s the thing—e-cigarettes are more dangerous than they seem. With the prevalence of vaping on UM’s campus alone, it is important that this message hits home: vaping is not safe. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate e-cigarettes. At first glance, this might not seem abnormal, since e-cigs are not drugs and thus can’t fall into the same category as narcotics or prescription medications. However, this really means that e-cig distributors are not required to put warning labels on their products. This makes it easy for the public to believe that there is no health threat, especially since cigarettes, a known evil, actually do have these warnings. But

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don’t be fooled! It is a lack of regulation that causes this, not a lack of danger. Still, the public remains largely uninformed and this failure to communicate has monumental effects. In 2016, the US Surgeon General found that American teens use e-cigarettes more than any other form of tobacco product. That’s right, tobacco products, a category which includes conventional cigarettes. Since e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which comes from tobacco, they are still considered tobacco products. And it’s not just trace amounts of nicotine either. One popular e-cigarette manufacturer notes on their website that using a pod of their product is like smoking 20 cigarettes, the equivalent of one pack in the United States. The similarities don’t stop there, either. Just like their predecessor, vapes can cause mood disorders like depression and anxiety as well as impulse control issues and nicotine addictions, according to the US Surgeon General. If, knowing this, you decide that vaping is worth the health risks, you might be thinking that it is a personal choice that only affects yourself. After all, there is no danger of secondhand smoke like there is with plain cigarettes, right? Wrong. The vapor from e-cigarettes is actually similarly harmful. Compounds like benzene (think car exhaust) accompany nicotine, and heavy metals like lead and tin infuse the sweet-smelling clouds that are released. Continued exposure to these chemicals can have serious repercussions in the lungs and brain. Even worse, according to the CDC, these compounds are released in small quantities from products that claim to only release water vapor. You may ask, if vaping is so bad for us, how did it become so popular? We can thank

Design & Graphic by: Leila Thompson

Vaping. What does the word bring to mind? Is it parties, sex, and music videos, or lung disease, nicotine and heavy metals? skillful (and expensive) marketing for that. Data from 2014 show that the vaping industry spent over $125 million on advertisements for their products. In that same year, 18 million teens and young adults had seen some form of this advertising. Even now, 5 years later, it seems almost impossible to watch a hip-hop or rap music video without someone using a vape product. Big artists like Bad Bunny, Migos, and DJ Khaled, can all be seen in their music videos casually vaping and using other popular tobacco products. It’s no secret that vape companies love this publicity. A simple Google search of “celebrities who vape” reveals links to pages of “celebrities who give vaping a good name” and “celebrity vapers who make us proud.” The flagrant use of fame to promote this habit is just a modern day version of what cigarette companies used to do. Stars like James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, and John Travolta all made smoking look chic and cool. The subliminal promotion of such products in films attracted a younger audience, making it seem like smoking was a way for them to relate to their famous idols. Whether we want to admit it or not, the youth of today is falling prey to the same bag of tricks. But not everything can be pinned on celebrities, of course. One of the main ways vape companies target our age demographic is through flavors. Of course kids wouldn’t want to smoke cigarettes, that’s disgusting! But puffing on a candy or alcohol flavored vape doesn’t sound nearly as bad. Sweet, tantalizing smells make vaping seem more like a kid-friendly treat and less like a toxic habit. Targeting youthful consumers is not the only danger that lurks

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Design & Graphic by: Leila Thompson

behind these flavors, especially considering that many contain a particularly dangerous chemical: diacetyl. According to the American Lung Association, the inhalation of diacetyl causes a condition called “popcorn lung.” This is a cute nickname for a horrible, incurable condition called bronchiolitis obliterans, which is characterized by the scarring of the tiny sacs in lung tissue. This compound was once commonly used in buttery flavorings of microwave popcorn, but was removed by leading popcorn manufacturers due to the health risks. Needless to say, it has yet to be removed from vapes. In 2015, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found diacetyl in 39 of 51 tested vape flavors sold by leading brands. This is especially concerning because, according to the US Surgeon General, 90% of young adult and 80% of teen (ages 12-17) e-cigarette users consume flavored products. What does it say about the vape industry that such a dangerous chemical can consistently be found in their products, and for no other reason than to make it taste better? They are willing to sacrifice the health of their consumers to make a hazardous product more marketable and appealing. Even with all of this information, it is all too easy to distance ourselves from the problem. Yes, those are the statistics, but what about our campus and our student body? From everyday observations it is clear that e-cigs and other vaping paraphernalia are constantly used by our peers, but did you know that this behavior is in direct violation of the non-smoking policy enforced by the University of Miami? That’s right, a quote straight from page 55 of the 2018-2019 Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook states the following: “The Coral Gables Campus and the Miller School of Medicine are smoke free environments; smoking is prohibited. “Smoking” includes inhaling, exhaling, burning, or carrying any lighted cigarette or electronic

cigarette, cigar, pipe or other such device which contains tobacco or other smoke producing products.” Whether students do not know about this stipulation or simply choose to ignore it, the use of e-cigs and nicotine vapes on campus is not only dangerous—it is prohibited. Future work will be done to quantify and analyze just how prevalent this illicit habit is on our UM campus in spite of the regulations put in place to control it. The bottom line is this: the use of vapes and e-cigarette products is a harmful hobby sponsored by an industry whose only goal is to make money. As college students, we are a target demographic for these companies and, far too often, we fall into their traps. As role models for younger siblings, family members, and generations to come, we must do our part to end the vaping craze once and for all.

Sweet, tantalizing smells make vaping seem more like a kid-friendly treat, and less like a toxic habit

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Design by: Lucero Barrantes

UNDEFINED By: Kimberley Rose

There are phenomena of this world Scientists still cannot describe Yet true to their work they found a word And named them “undefined�.

Undefined is the way Certain sounds strung together Can make a body move Or a soul sing or cry

Undefined are emotions Waves of iridescent blue Crashing into the shore of a mind Eroding away at its reason

It is the way that scratches of ink on paper Can carry you away on countless expeditions And transform you into someone You could have only dreamed of

One could claim it comes down to chemicals But chemicals cannot think or feel They will not proclaim their journeys Across synapse after synapse

Yet sights, sounds, and words Do not try to make you feel They are simply there They are the defined

They cannot tell you how to act Or how to interpret Their interruptions of homeostasis Nor do they fear how you will respond

It is how we bridge the gap How we feel and think and dream Unique to every single living person Who has walked across this earth

Undefined is the bridge The interpretation The response To all of the chaos

This is where the undefined thrives Where each individual nuance provides nourishment To a term so widely misunderstood And uncared for

The thousands, millions of Interneural interactions Being processed by a mind incapable Of defining its own capabilities

This is where The word for no words Will forever Live on.

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Immortality:

THE FINAL FRONTIER

What Comparative Biology can Teach Us About Aging and Longevity

W

-GRANT DE LA VASSELAIS

HAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU COULD live forever? Would you drop everything and travel the world? Try all of the things you thought were impossible? Immortality has a way of putting things like this into perspective, which is why our preoccupation with conquering time is a mission as old as time itself. Forget about an afterlife—the desire to ward off any kind of aging and death has permeated the popular consciousness for millennia. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Sumerian epic poem from the 22nd century BCE, the great king Gilgamesh of Uruk undertakes a long and perilous journey to discover the secret of eternal life. Ultimately, he learns that his quest is impossible, because eternal life is a blessing reserved for only the gods. Attempts like Gilgamesh’s have long been seen as foolhardy, be it Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi’s consumption of mercury to cheat death, or quests to find the Fountain of Youth that have left countless adventurers swallowed by the wilderness. That thinking, however, is rapidly giving way to a new paradigm, one that views medical advances and health policy as keys to achieving this long standing ambition. Life expectancy in the United States has risen from 47 years to 78 years in the past century, thanks to improvements in nutrition, health care, and sanitation. We are a nation obsessed with youth—the market for anti-aging cosmetics and treatments is expected to reach $330 billion by 2021. However, no matter how many servings of unseasoned vegetables we eat, or how many extracts with foreign-sounding names we apply to our faces, we seem to have reached a longevity plateau,

with diminishing returns in lifespan as well as quality of life in old age, for our investments. What’s more, as much of the world’s population ages, diseases afflicting the elderly such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, and various forms of cancer are expected to skyrocket, along with the associated costs of treating these conditions. The population of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease is projected to more than double by 2060, according to the 2017 UCLA Study, “Forecasting the prevalence of preclinical and clinical Alzheimer’s disease in the United States.” There is no known cure for the condition, which makes finding methods to combat the effects of aging and cognitive decline all the more urgent. Are we, too, fated to go the route of Gilgamesh, or is there a possible solution to the greying of our society? It turns out that plenty of researchers think so. One of the methods currently being employed to unlock the secrets of long life is to study the factors driving animal lifespans through comparative biology. A more straightforward determinant of how long animal species live is their sizes: the tiny mouse lives for several years, on average, while some whales can be expected to live for well over a century. In 2016, a group of researchers using carbon-14 testing estimated a Greenland shark in its possession to have lived for 392 years. Illustrating the concept in a study published in 2007, João Pedro Magalhães of the University of Liverpool in the UK, plotted body mass against maximum known lifespan of more than 1,400 species, and found a direct correlation in size with body mass. Magalhães found that 63% of the variation in lifespan could be explained by body mass. Various explanations have been used to describe this

Life expectancy in the United States has risen from 47 years to 78 years in the past century, thanks to improvements in nutrition, health care, and sanitation

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Average Lifespan (years)

75

25

Naked Mole rats are considered to be an exception to the “Magalhães” rule being similar in size to common rats and mice but living almost twice as long as the domestic house cat

NAKED MOLE RAT

HUMANS

called daf-2 is known to allow nematode worms to live doubled and healthy lifespans. Additionally, dwarf mice with mutated versions of genes that undermine production of growth hormone, the hormone prolactin and thyroid-stimulating hormone, live about 40% longer than control animals. Another phenomenon, in which large animals such as whales and elephants exhibit lower rates of cancer as compared to humans, has also been explained by sequencing. In 2015, when a team led by Joshua Schiffman of the University of Utah looked at data from sequencing studies. They found the African elephant has 40 copies of the gene that encodes p53—a protein that plays a key anti-cancer role—while humans have just two. So, how close are we to finding the proverbial Fountain of Youth? Don’t bother holding your breath. While much work is being done on the science of aging, many who study the subject feel that we are still a long way away from definitive measures to dramatically increase lifespan and quality of life in later years. Presently, there is no proven way to delay, even slightly, the human aging process, and interventions to prevent cognitive decline and dementia are still far beyond the horizon. Still, it’s not a stretch to imagine that tangible benefits of research in comparative biology could be felt in our lifetimes, especially regarding therapies to combat specific chronic diseases. Perhaps the fact that the secrets to true eternal life may be permanently beyond our grasp is for the best. After all, the wise seer that Gilgamesh sought out offered him a silver lining in his failure: that worrying too much about our end robs life of its inherent joys, and that a life well lived is one that makes the most out of every day.

Design & Graphic by: Leila Thompson

relationship, such as a decrease in metabolic rate with size, a greater resilience to injury and illness, or even a decrease in predation at larger sizes, but scientists are still unsure of exactly what drives the trend. What’s even more interesting, however, is how some animals buck trends and live far longer—or shorter— lives than predicted. In 1991, Dr Steven Austad, a Distinguished Professor at the University of Alabama, created a useful step in identifying what animals to study, called the “longevity quotient.” Austad explains, “A dog is about a quotient of 1, which is a normal lifespan for its size. A mouse is 0.5 — about half of what we’d expect it to live considering its size.” The naked mole rat is a glaring exception to the rule, with a quotient of 5. Though it’s not much larger than a common lab mouse, it lives 30 years as opposed to three. Even more importantly to scientists, naked mole rats tend to stay healthy throughout the duration of their lives and have very low rates of cancer. Why? The main mechanism may be hyaluronic acid, which many animals, including humans, produce naturally. Naked mole rats produce an unusual form of the acid, and in very high quantities, so that very large and de-bonded acid molecules saturate the tissues, providing antioxidant properties and directly reducing cancer risk by acting as a hair trigger to stop excess cell growth. Research is currently being conducted to try and develop cancer treatments based off the compound. Another promising frontier in anti-aging strategies lies in the development of genetic therapies. The development of fast and inexpensive DNA sequencing technologies has offered scientists important insight into the roles of genes in regulating longevity in a variety of species. For example, a mutation in a gene

If you google “Greenland Shark” you might run across headlines claiming to have discovered a “500 Year old Shark!”. This isn’t necessarily true; a 2016 survey estimated shark ages ranging from 272 to 512 years old. While there may be a shark swimming around as old as the Mona lLsa, scientists have yet to find it.

DOLPHINS

RHINOS

ELEPHANTS

Average Size (m)

GREENLAND SHARK

WHALES

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Brazil Goes

RETROviral

on HIV

T

HE HIV-AIDS CRISIS is a familiar issue in the United States, but grasping the mechanisms behind how we prevent HIV from progressing into AIDS on a population scale is a different and complicated matter. Brazil is an exemplary case of understanding HIVprevention and management on a national scale. As a middle-income country, Brazil has the capacity to deliver a multitude of programs to address the crisis and has surpassed the United States in all aspects of HIV management. In order to understand the complicated network of systems that provide HIV treatment to a nation, one must first understand HIV at the molecular level. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a communicable virus spread through mucous membranes via blood and blood-contaminated bodily fluids that attacks the body’s own immune system, specifically the CD4 T-cells. Over time, HIV can destroy so many T-cells that the body cannot fight off infections and disease, resulting in acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Although currently there is no permanent cure available, HIV can be effectively managed through the use of antiretroviral therapy (ART). There are many antiretroviral drugs that physicians can combine in different ways for each patient in order to suppress the virus. The World Health Organization, also known as WHO, has recommended a combination of antiretroviral drugs for people starting HIV treatment: TDF (tenofovir), either 3TC (lamivudine) or FTC (emtricitabine), and EFV (efavirenz). Yet, while these drugs have proven to be very

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- Samantha Mosle effective in managing HIV infection within individuals, it is crucial to prevent the spread of HIV for the health of the overall population. Individuals can avoid contracting the virus by practicing safe sex and not sharing needles, as well as receiving newer HIV prevention medicines such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). HIV management is a global initiative that is best exemplified with the WHO 90-90-90 targets. The 90-9090 targets refer to the pathway by which a person is tested, linked, retained in HIV care, and subsequently begins treatment with antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), also known as the treatment cascade, to achieve viral suppression. In an ideal situation, 90% of people would be aware of their HIV status, 90% of those would be on ART, and 90% of those on ART would have the virus suppressed. In 2012, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 87% of people with HIV in the United States knew they were infected, 39% were seeing an HIV doctor, 36% were receiving treatment, and 30% had the virus suppressed. Brazil, on the other hand, reported 84% of people knew they had HIV, 64% were on treatment, and 59% of people had the virus suppressed. Surprisingly, Brazil has significantly higher treatment and suppression rates, which begs the question: why has Brazil been far more successful than the United States in addressing HIV? In Brazil, AIDS-related deaths are falling and the number of people receiving ART is rising at a rapid rate; these positive statistics can be attributed to Brazil’s approach to public health. At the federal level in Brazil,


education, and economic security. It exists in only 13% of municipalities, but in those municipalities, the council has done well in reaching female sex workers. In regions with Women’s Rights Councils, 90% of female sex workers report requiring condoms and 80% are covered by HIV prevention programs. This is good news because women sex workers are a vulnerable, marginalized population and the councils provide safety and decreases stigma towards sex workers. Unfortunately, not all marginalized populations are protected. Among men, especially Afro-Brazilian and gay men, only 64% self-report using condoms and only 30% are covered by HIV prevention programs. There is still a huge stigma (and often associated hate crimes) against being a gay man and/or having HIV. Hate crimes occur against around 44% of gay men, especially in rural areas. This stigma makes it unlikely for gay or Afro-Brazilian men to seek treatment due to fear of violence. Unfortunately, under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, these statistics for homosexual men and marginalized AfroBrazilian people are unlikely to change given his homophobic and racist tendencies. According to Dr. Michael Touchton, an assistant professor at the University of Miami studying the political economy of national (under) development in a comparative setting, there are several major areas where the United States can learn from Brazil. A worrying trend in the U.S. shows that condom use is dropping, whereas, on the other hand, it is still rising in Brazil through public service announcements and campaigns. This decline creates new vulnerabilities in the U.S., which would be easy to avoid through continued public education on condom use. Another way that the U.S. can learn from Brazil is in outreach to female sex workers. Women sex workers are less stigmatized and have much better access to treatment in Brazil than in the U.S. A possible solution to reducing stigma against sex workers in the U.S. could be found through de facto decriminalization of sex work and extension of healthcare services to sex workers. Most importantly, the United States should implement universal healthcare as well as patient empowerment through local health initiatives similar to the councils in Brazil. In 2016, the census reported that 28.1 million people in the U.S., 8.8% of the total population, did not have health coverage. This is a significant portion of the

Design by: Samantha Mosle

healthcare is a constitutional right and the country has universal healthcare through the national system, Sistema Único de Saúde (SUS), combined with a large, private supplemental market. Although there is universal healthcare, an enormous disparity exists between lowincome patients and the rest of the population. Therefore, particularly in isolated regions, the local delivery of quality healthcare tends to suffer. Recent efforts under the leadership of previous presidents have gone far to reach isolated populations with programs such as la Programa de Saude da Familia, which sends teams of nurse practitioners to even more remote areas and delivers basic preventative medical care. Additionally, local health initiatives take civilians and pair them with government officials to help design, monitor, and evaluate health programs throughout Brazil. In fact, health councils exist in nearly all of Brazil’s 5,570 municipalities. In spite of these revolutionary programs, inequity in care continues to exist. Poor, rural municipalities tend to administer programs poorly while wealthy areas are over-served. Only 40% of the marginalized populations and 23% of afro-Brazilians are enrolled in the Family Health Program; this means a large portion of the poor and marginalized Brazilian population does not receive adequate healthcare. In response to this, national HIV policy in Brazil is focused on prevention and education because it is cheap, effective, and sustainable. In terms of prevention, Brazil is the world’s largest condom importer, and safe sex/HIV testing is advertised fervently during Carnaval, as the festival tends to promote risky behavior. Health teams also deliver education and condoms to the population. In Brazil, ART drugs are free to patients and are manufactured generically which lowers the cost from $136/month to only $8-16/month. Brazil also has a large conditional cash transfer program in which low-income people receive aid (~$50 per month). By making the drugs cheap, Brazil has reduced inequity of care, specific to HIV, making treatment accessible to lowincome populations. Brazil’s safe-sex education programs, accessible treatment, and reduced stigma have led to major improvements in HIV management and AIDS prevention. Another important outreach program that improves HIV management is the Women’s Rights Council, a specific health council that targets women’s health,

“Brazil has reduced inequity of care, specific to HIV, making treatment accessible to low-income populations.”

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Graphic by: Leila Thompson

population that is unlikely to be tested for, let alone treated for, HIV. The United States, one of the only industrialized nations without universal health coverage, spends a vast amount of money on healthcare due to our single-payer system. In 1943, during WWII, a time period in which other industrialized countries implemented universal healthcare, the U.S. began a system of employersponsored healthcare that began as an incentive to retain workers after President Franklin D. Roosevelt froze wages. This system of incomplete coverage eventually morphed into the publicly and privately-funded patchwork of fragmented programs and systems that we have today. Nowadays in 2019, a combination of apathy, fear of change, ignorance of healthcare systems, and greed have kept the U.S. from changing healthcare policy. Access to healthcare is dictated by income, location, socioeconomic status, and numerous other factors that pose

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insurmountable barriers for a large chunk of American citizens. Reaching the 90-90-90 WHO targets for the U.S. should be of paramount importance in our legislature today. The U.S. government must acknowledge that nations with universal healthcare, education, and initiatives to reach out to sex workers and other marginalized groups are far more successful at reducing the incidence of HIV transmission and increasing the number of people who are both on treatment and experiencing viral suppression. At the local level, we as patients need to begin initiatives that will create healthcare opportunities for ourselves as well as people less fortunate in order to create a healthy, unified community. It is time for the U.S. to learn from the successes of other countries in order to adapt and improve our own nation.


A

S WINTER APPROACHES, the hours of sunlight get shorter. The weather becomes colder. People become less motivated to leave their homes. The gloom and doom of wintertime has a tendency to evoke “winter blues” in many people, especially those living in the colder states. In the 1980s, research at the National Institutes of Mental Health gave the “winter blues” an upgrade: it was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly known as the DSM. It was officially coined Seasonal Affective Disorder, (SAD). SAD became classified as a seasonal variant of major depressive disorder, making it much more serious than the common “winter blues.” SAD is most commonly treated with artificial light in the form of light visors and light boxes. Biologically, light treatments aren’t completely unfounded. Our bodies follow circadian rhythms, a roughly 24 hour cycle in the physiological processes of living beings. One example of a circadian rhythm is the sleep/ wake cycle, which is regulated by melatonin. Melatonin responds to light and signals darkness to our brains when its levels increase. The change in hours of sunlight during winter could possibly disrupt the sleep/ wake cycle since it is indirectly regulated by light. In terms of depression, this leads to a positive feedback loop: disruption of the sleep/wake cycle brings on fatigue which can worsen existing depression; the worsening of depression increases the

-Amirah Rashed

incidence of fatigue and so on. Though it wasn’t their initial intention, a group of researchers at Auburn University at Montgomery were able to shed some light on the weakness of evidence regarding SAD. The researchers initially set out to “to determine the actual extent to which depression changes with the seasons.” They used a cross-sectional study of the US population, which is conducted by the CDC annually and included responses from 34,000 adults. Researchers tested for links between high latitude, season, light levels, and depression scores. When these tests, revealed no evidence for SAD, they narrowed their population to only those who classified as depressed at the time of the survey. They still found no evidence. While the established trends of depression, higher rates among women and the unemployed, were clearly visible, trends linking depression with seasons and light were undetectable. So, how does SAD play out in different countries? In Norway, where the winters have severely shortened daylight, researchers expected that SAD rates would be higher in regards to its correlation to sunlight hours. Instead, they found no significant relationship between participation month and depression. One explanation for this could be cultural bias, a phenomena in which people judge situations through the inherent standards of their own cultures. An example of this is the East-West divide in assessing symptoms of depression as a normative part of life versus pathology, respectively. As with all scientific studies, we aren’t able to prove that SAD doesn’t exist just because there is a lack of evidence. It is possible that SAD is simply rare, making it hard to detect in a population. Another possibility is that SAD is better classified as its own mood disorder, rather than being a seasonal variant of major depressive disorder. Hopefully, further research can elucidate the true causes of SAD. Until then, it doesn’t hurt to get some fresh air and sunlight whenever you get the chance.

Design by: Samantha Mosle

Wintertime SADness

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16 | Brain and Behavior


Join Camp Kesem in Summer 2019

Nurses and mental health professionals needed for life-changing summer camp programs. For more information, contact miami@campkesem.org

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Your Brain on Vi

Y

OUR REALITY IS HOW you percieve the world.. Take a moment and think about this: everything you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is mostly a product of your brain firing in response to stimuli (or possibly a lack thereof). Humans, refusing to accept this limitation, have tried for millenia to both alter and enhance their perception of the world around them, whether it be through drugs, entertainment, meditation, or other means. Virtual reality (VR) is meant to do just this: change the way that we perceive the world and replace it with a “virtual realm.” As the Virtual Reality Society puts it, VR is the “​means of creating the illusion that we are present somewhere we are not;” in short, full immersion. The concept of VR was loosely inspired by panoramic paintings, which are long paintings where up to 360 degrees of a scene could be viewed, immersing the viewer in the painting and appearing as if the viewer was actually present within it. Immersion was better understood with the advent of psychology. Charles Wheatstone, an English scientist and inventor, discovered that the brain truly perceives the world as two-dimensional pictures, and the combination of slight differences between the two eyes produces a three-dimensional final product, the one that we see. Try focusing on one object, closing one eye, then switching which eye is closed to see this effect. It should move slightly as you change eyes. This psychological development led to the first stereoscopic images, or ones which are taken from slightly different angles to produce the illusion of depth, and rudimentary

18 | Brain and Behavior

stereoscopes. Google Cardboard and other “smartphonepowered” VR devices today use this same principle. One of the first delves into multisensory experiences was Morton Heilig’s Sensorama in the mid-1900s, which in addition to immersive audiovisual elements, included che mically created smells that would waft to the viewer, fans, and a vibrating chair; all of these elements accompanied the movie on screen. Although it was a bulky machine and was not really meant for home use, it still delivered cutting-edge entertainment. The 1960’s saw the first head mounted displays as well as primitive head tracking and motion tracking. It was not until the 1990’s that the modern concept of virtual reality took hold. In addition to arcade machines that featured VR headsets, two of the biggest video game companies, Sega and Nintendo, attempted to make virtual reality available to the home audience. Sega announced the Sega VR headset in 1993, though it never saw the light of day. Nintendo, on the other hand, successfully released their “Virtual Boy” console in 1995, but it was a commercial failure. The 2010’s have set the stage for the successful VR that is seen today, with the development of more sufficiently sophisticated audiovisual technology. Today, big names in the VR scene are the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, the Google Cardboard, and many others that are tested and released every year, each with their own unique attributes. The cutting-edge virtual reality of today works on the same principles that were established decades ago: very accurate binocular (stereoscopic) vision, head tracking, and an accelerometer to measure the speed of head movements. These elements come together to produce mind-bending and visually


By: Austin Berger

stimulating experiences; coupled with superior audio from built-in headphones, this encapsulates the user by producing sound that corresponds to the virtual location it originated from. Today, companies at the forefront of VR tech also allow consumers to buy controllers specially built for VR that fit the grip of one’s hand and mimic hands in the virtual world, allowing one to interact with objects in it. In the physical world, sensors are placed around the user’s play area to detect both the controllers’ movements and support the headtracking component of the VR headset. Observing what goes wrong in some VR experiences can help us understand what else is occurring in the brain when one enters VR. The inner ear contains a sensory system known as the vestibular system that detects motion, head position, and spatial orientation. One of the main parts of this system is the semicircular canals, each of which corresponds to a different head motion: the “yes” motion, the “no” motion, and tilting the head left and right. Virtual reality can recreate the latter two quite easily, but struggles with motion. When one walks normally, the fluid within the semicircular canals (endolymph) moves in response to the direction of the movement, allowing one to adjust and not become discombobulated because of their changing surroundings. A disconnect between the inner vestibular system and reality causes motion sickness. For example, people can experience this when they attempt to read in the car. They focus on an unmoving book, but outside the book, their physical body is in motion. The difference between the movement of the endolymph in the canals and the lack of movement in the visual field causes a discrepancy and thus

Design by: Caitlin Smith

Virtual Reality

causes motion sickness. Developers of VR plan to fix this motion sickness by adding a treadmill or other reactive movement system that allows the user to move in virtual space while remaining in the relatively same physical space. In addition to this, haptic feedback, or the “sense of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to the user,” is another concept that VR companies are attempting to replicate with rumble and vibration mechanisms in gloves, chest pieces, or even full body suits. Companies are even developing scent-producing devices to fit onto existing VR headsets to bring imaginary smells to life, harking back to the Sensorama over half a century ago. Fortunately, these innovations will lend themselves to more than just entertainment. Today, virtual reality has a plethora of uses. One of the prominent uses of virtual reality is in psychology, namely in the treatments of phobias. VR can be utilized in exposure therapy, where clients are e​ xposed ​to what they fear most. Since this is in a safe, virtual setting, it teaches them to control their fear and therefore appropriately react to their phobias, pushing them towards rehabilitation. It is also used in medicine for training and educating doctors, as well as for robotic surgeries, where doctors are able to operate robotic components and in real time. Additionally, virtual environments can help architects perfect their newest creations, car manufacturers test out new designs, and the military train pilots at a reduced cost. Virtual reality could quite possibly be the future of many diverse fields in life.

Research | 19


What Light Through Yonder Canopy Breaks? Romeo The Frog

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T MIGHT COME AS A SURPRISE to many in the animal lover community that frogs are facing imminent extinction. Indeed, herpetologists (scientists who study amphibians) have declared this period in time an “Amphibian Extinction Crisis” because populations have declined so sharply. While some causes for extinction are habitat loss, pollution, and climate change, other threats come from diseases such as the deadly chytrid fungus disease, chytridiomycosis. As a matter of fact, “Romeo,” a Sehuencas water frog native to South America and once thought to be the world’s loneliest frog, has survived the threat of extinction by finding his “Juliet” in the wild with the help of scientists. Five frogs, three males and two females, were found by conservationists working in Bolivia whose mission was to find a mate for Romeo. Unfortunately, Romeo has been alone and trying to find a mate for over 10 years. Since going mainstream on major news outlets, Romeo’s international fame has amassed through his fight to escape extinction which has helped other amphibian species by raising awareness about endangerment, not just in the scientific community but amongst the general populace as well. As an attempt to find Romeo’s mate, Juliet, Bolivian scientists raced to raise money for the quest to accomplish the feat. Camacho, a scientist passionate about studying the endangerment of Sehuencas frogs, raised enough money to go on the expedition. The scientists were determined to find the Seheuncas frog and wouldn’t stop without a fight when faced with obstacles of contaminated waterways and lack of female mates. Camacho searched one more creek before calling it quits on the expedition. Luckily, she stumbled upon a frog with an orange belly—the Sehuencas frog. However, the female frog they caught is different from Romeo. As a frog captured from the wild, she possesses a more active lifestyle, while Romeo has lived a relatively sedentary life

20 | Brain and Behavior

-Frank Gutierrez

in captivity. It will take time for both frogs to acclimate to each other’s mating times and behaviors. After some more investigation, the scientists quickly discovered that capturing the Sehuencas frog had been the easy task. The real challenge lie in successfully mating the two frogs. The tradeoff for rescuing a species on the verge of extinction is the predisposition to inbreeding, which will have a negative effect on the population of Sehuencas frogs. Inbreeding causes a major problem because the frogs are mating with relatives, which will reduce their genetic diversity, the size of their gene pool, and ultimately, their survival. Through inbreeding, the frogs will continuously be homozygous for certain harmful traits and will never inherit any new genes that will enable them to better survive in their environment, a phenomenon termed inbreeding depression. Inbreeding also predisposes organisms to a higher risk of susceptibility to pathogens and parasites. The main extinction factor for the Sehuencas frog was an increase in susceptibility to the chytrid fungus, so by inbreeding the Sehuencas frogs, scientists would simply be allowing them to continue dying due to the disease. As a result, the population would stay at a minimal size until the scientists find a way to increase the population without excessive inbreeding. Maintaining endangered species such as these frogs is crucial to ecosystem health. Having one last surviving species in Bolivia can restore ecological balance, while losing a species such as the Sehuencas frog could potentially cause their predators to become extinct as well. Frogs consume insects, such as mosquitoes, which protects humans from getting bitten and blocks the transmission of dangerous diseases. The scientists working with the Sehuencas frogs hope that by the next Valentine, Romeo and Juliet will mate and spur on the population growth needed to save our beloved amphibians from extinction.


Design by: Sandra Taboada | Graphic by: Leila Thompson

Research | 21


System.out.print(iHuman); T

THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT TODAY has become increasingly more digitized over the past decade. Pretty much any manual task we can think of can be done with a simple tap of a smartphone or click of a laptop. The usage of online applications, social media, software, and gaming is prevalent in all sectors of life, including the lives of college students. With technology involved in so much of what we do, it is no wonder why it affects our everyday interactions and experiences. In fact, recent studies have shown that approximately 10 percent of people’s internet usage interferes with their work, family, or social activities. As more and more studies shed light onto similar phenomena, it is clear that there are various detrimental and long-lasting effects of technology usage in young adults and adolescents. Because the human brain is malleable in response to a changing environment, most youths born into the information age have become accustomed to a world of laptops, cell phones, text messaging, and tweeting. On average, these digital natives spend 8 ½ hours per day in front of a screen. Although consistent exposure may result in heightened skills of multitasking, complex reasoning, and acceptable decision making, technology decreases our levels of empathy and lowers our efforts for initiating social interactions. Therefore, our brains are “re-wired” or remade to be withdrawn and uncommunicative. This can then affect both our relationships with people and how we handle interpersonal issues. Additionally, constant use of cell phones and other technologies may keep us awake in bed and cause us to lose more sleep at night. The blue light emitted by screens on cell phones, computers, tablets, and television screens restrains the brain’s production of melatonin, the hormone that controls sleep/wake cycles and our circadian rhythm. Reducing melatonin makes it harder to fall and stay asleep, and thus using devices so close to bedtime can result in sleep disturbances. A lack of sleep may then lead to low energy, drowsy driving, lack

22 | Brain and Behavior

-Isabella Lopez

of concentration, and lowered information retention. This has been particularly noted by college students who perform less well in class and on exams. Current research demonstrates that children who use technology before sleeping are more likely to have an elevated body mass index (BMI), increasing the risk for overweightness and obesity. Our ability to read has also been affected by technology,


our attention or get distracted by multiple pop-up ads or links in the text. Thus, the more we get exposed to digital resources, the less willing you are to read books with lengthy articles. These trends can also be noticed in those reading E-books. One study completed at Norway’s Stavanger University found differences in the reading compression and recollection of individuals exposed

to Kindle and paperbacks. It was found that those who read from the Kindle remembered less details and events than those who read from physical copies. Too much exposure to virtual media will inhibit our brain’s capacity to appreciate longer sentences, fully constructed arguments, and complex plots and narratives. In turn, this leads to losing our ability to contextualize information and to solve underlying problems, because all the information we seek is readily available online. In regards to technology-related addictions, on a neurological level, the pattern of expectation followed by reward leads the brain to release dopamine and other “feel-good” chemicals. This reward may come from winning a level of a video game and getting “likes” on a picture; with more and more activity arises a greater dependency on this feeling. The repercussions of internet addiction come in two forms: physiological and mental. Back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, neck pain due to cervical spondylitis, and sciatica pain are all common physical symptoms. Psychologically, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and stress levels are also accentuated to a greater degree. Extreme cases of iron deficiency anemia (IDA) with brain damage found in the white matter of the subcortical areas have also been seen, which resemble conditions commonly seen in heavy substance abusers. All in all, the impact of technologies on the human mind are all-encompassing; they can affect any person of any age and have become a secondary culture in our society. Nonetheless, there are a number of ways alleviate the consequences of technology usage. To sleep more effectively, a person can try and avoid cell phones, tablets, and other screen-based devices at least one hour before bed. Furthermore, one can attempt to utilize hardcover textbooks and pamphlets rather than e-Books to study efficiently. Either way, there is no moving backward from the technological revolution. Technology usage is part of our daily lives, and we must find ways to adapt and reshape our minds in response to these challenges.

Design by: Sandra Taboada | Photography by: Fabiana De Luca

which promotes shorter attention spans. Because most web pages will have several advertisements and graphics, most people will skim through articles to find specific information and may sometimes jump from one tab to the other in case one article fails to pique their interest. Pages are usually read in a hurried manner, and we may only stop at a headline that grasps

Research | 23


Design & Graphic by: Sandra Taboada

TURNING UP O

CTOBER 6th, 2018 WAS NO NORMAL Saturday at the University of Miami. It marked the long-awaited football game versus Florida State University. However, by the third quarter, the score was not looking in the favor UM winning with FSU having a 20 point lead. The worst possibility had occurred: our team was in a rut. However, not for long. A ray of hope shone through harder than the unforgiving Miami sun in the form of the Turnover Chain: a glistening 36-inch, 10-karat, gold, green, and orange, sapphire-studded Cuban link chain brandishing Miami’s newest charm, Sebastian the Ibis. Florida State had let out a fumble, which was quickly recovered by cornerback Sheldrick Redwine. The whole team quickly walked towards the sideline and the turnover chain was brandished by Redwine. In that moment, UM fans and players surged with an electric excitement as if struck by a bolt of lightning. Everyone watching the game knew that it wasn’t the turnover itself, but the turnover chain that changed the dynamic of not only the fans and our team, but the entire game itself. From that moment on, The University of Miami was able to come back and win a hard-fought game at a final score of 28-27. However, this astonishing comeback prompts an intriguing psychological question: how does a piece of jewelry unique to our team positively affect the performance of our players and change a college football team so significantly? In order to answer this question, the logic of the creator must be understood. Manny Diaz, the University of Miami’s former defensive coordinator and current head coach, had the idea to construct the chain with the help of Vince Wilfork, ex-Hurricane and former NFL player, and Anthony “King of Bling” Machado, a prominent jeweler in the Miami area. Their ultimate goal with this innovation was to bring the “swag back” to the ‘Canes and promote turnovers during games. Their

24 | Brain and Behavior

more veiled ambition put to use a type of logic that includes incentivization and positive reinforcement. Specifically, material rewards like the large, gold chain are a common facet of motivation psychology, one exploited perfectly by the turnover chain. To understand the scientific basis of the universal vigor and vitality produced by the chain, we must understand its psychological and neurobiological elements, both of which synergize to create what we refer to as “motivation.” The psychological factors behind the concept of motivation are either extrinsic or intrinsic, and affect everyone on a daily basis. Intrinsic factors positively reinforce actions by relying on innate and natural satisfaction, while extrinsic factors do the same but by using a material reward like the turnover chain. In the case of the turnover chain, both factors not only force turnovers, but also incite a neurological need to maintain the same levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine that cause players who once obtained the chain to try to get it yet again. In a way, this mechanism similar to that of addiction. Once someone starts using a drug, the same neurotransmitter reward pathway is activated and causes the user to not only feel the effects of the initial drug usage, but to want to continue using the substance. This phenomenon is frequently seen during football games. The result? Players who secure the coveted turnover chain in the beginning of the game secure it more and more, incentivized as the game and season continue. A deeper understanding of the chain’s effects can be found by examining the physical brain circuits that are activated when a turnover occurs and the chain is brought out. In general, the limbic system, which involves the limbic cortex, hippocampus, amygdala, and septal area, is partially responsible for general emotions, new memories,


Ar b

-A da m

and motivation. In order to sustain motivation in a player, all of these structures work together to recognize certain emotions and senses, and to interpret them in the context of the player’s core drives and motivations. The athlete’s neurons and synapses work and adjust to remember these sensations and connect the emotions and physical feelings to concrete memories. These connections are what motivate players to pursue more turnovers. In addition to all of this, the limbic system is also connected to the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in pleasure. The two systems integrate pleasure and cognitive control, allowing players’ motivation to be channelled into analytical decisions that yield more turnovers on field. As we all know, nothing gives the ‘Canes more pleasure than seeing the opposing team’s fans look down and stare at their feet in awkward disappointment. There are many other factors involved in the Canes’ football success, especially in regards to the famous turnover chain; however, the main factor, above all else, is the University of Miami’s unwavering pride and our unique and overwhelming sense of community.

ise r

TU R CH NO AI VE N R

FOR THE

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Design by: Caitlin Smith

AI: D

From Science Fiction to Reality

UE TO THE CREATIVE ABILITIES of humans, what was once considered to be science fiction is becoming a reality as technology advances. In the last few years, thanks to monumental technological developments, artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer unfeasible or impossible, and many agree that true AI is close to being achieved. The AI industry is fast-growing and sophisticated, and humanlike robots are being created to serve as platforms for the latest AI technology. An intelligent, pretty woman with green eyes, a bright smile, and a good sense of humor has made international headlines. But make no mistake, this is no human— Sophia, one of the most advanced robots built so far, is a prime example of the quickly appearing AI technologies. Since her debut in 2016, Sophia has risen to stardom. But what makes Sophia a celebrity? Undoubtedly, it is her level of sophistication. As Sophia’s creation made headlines, the world was surprised at how technology has advanced to a point that a robot could mimic social behaviors and inspire feelings of love and compassion in humans. Thanks to an advanced neural network and delicate motor control in its head, this humanoid created by David Hanson, a former Disney Imagineer, has the complex ability to express emotions ranging from curiosity to frustration. According to its creator, Sophia’s face imitates every major muscle in the human face. She can raise her eyebrows, as a normal person would do in a situation of surprise, or smile to show joy. As Hanson explains, “she will see your expressions and sort of match a little bit and also try to understand in her own way, what it is you might be feeling." These pre-programed sets of expressions and deep learning are achieved by the latest developments in material technology, making them more realistic and more true to human nature. Hanson Robotics studies the neurobiology of human facial expressions to help mimic these behaviors and microexpressions in their mechanical models. However, David Hanson explains that even though Sphia can represent a variety of different emotional states and recognize them on a human face,

26 | Brain and Behavior

-Ingrid Torrens

further development is needed. It is important to notice that although Sophia might look like a self-aware robot, as in the movie Ex Machina, no robot has yet achieved artificial general intelligence (AGI). For a robot to achieve AGI, the machine needs to be able to reason, make judgements under uncertain situations, learn, and possess common sense knowledge like a human being. Right now, "she is a tool for science in studying human-tohuman interaction,” says Hanson. Sophia’s appearance is a connection of humanity and technology, giving the idea that technology can enhance and help humanity to reach a higher state of being. This leads to a myriad of questions: “what is real and what is not?”, “how can AI help us solve our problems?”, and most importantly, “what does the future hold?” However, it is normal and necessary to ask these profound questions; at the end of the day, AI is reshaping societies. Artificial intelligence has found a home in our daily routines. Every hour, either directly or indirectly, we are using, managing, and responding to artificial intelligence—a scary thought. Smartphones are full of applications that track the user’s data to make predictions of the user’s future behavior. In late 2018, Google revealed Duplex, an AI-powered assistant that can mimic human voice and simulate natural conversations, making it hard for the other person on the phone to tell if the speaker is a real person or a machine. The assistant adjusts to the person on the other end of the line, rather than the person adjusting to the system. In an incredible test run in front of an audience, Google Duplex called a hairdresser for a client and effortlessly booked an appointment, responding naturally to the hairdresser’s detail-oriented questions and even throwing in natural verbal fillers such as “uh” and “um.” This is a major advancement toward more natural interactions between AI and humans, but one that worries business leaders and common consumers alike. For AI to reach its maximum potential, it needs to establish a caring or meaningful relationship with humans. Here is where robots like Sophia come into play.


“Technology has advanced to a point that a robot could To interact with people in a more natural way, Sophia’s creator wants her to develop a deep understanding of human nature by incorporating these algorithms in a way that allows her to build a more complete character. Interestingly, humanlike looks influence how powerful and emotional interactions are created and conveyed between humans and AI. However, it is possible to fall into the trap of an illusory relationship with these machines, as feelings of trust and even over-attachment can develop in users who are in continued contact with the machines. This leads people to fear robots like Sophia and how our lives may be affected by their presence and development. Sophia’s ability to maintain dialogue and dynamically integrate perceptions are absolutely cutting-edge in the AI world. Yet for now, Sophia’s intelligence is based on a script, lacking “real” cognition. Creativity, as well as lateral and critical thinking, are human abilities that are especially hard to mimic. Though movies such as Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence remain just science fiction, it is almost impossible to predict where this robot revolution will take us. Some people think AI is a good tool, one that will make our lives easier and help us to cut out the more mundane aspects of life. Others take on a more cynical outlook of a future with AI. Either way, the same question applies: are you ready to embrace a future with AI?

mimic social behaviors and inspire feelings of love and compassion in humans”

Ethics | 27


Cortical Stacks: The Philosopher's Microchip -Jasson Makkar -Raghuram Reddy

I

MAGINE YOU ARE IN A CAR ACCIDENT and you wake up in an entirely new body. You find out that your original body had been killed and that you have been uploaded into a new body through the small implant in your head: a cortical stack. Cortical stacks are a technology of science fiction and have been featured in popular shows such as Altered Carbon and Black Mirror. With the hopes of marketing their upcoming TV show release, Netflix created a booth display at the Consumer Electronics Show previewing this fascinating technology. This technology would be used for the storage of memories and experiences directly from the human nervous system. In the show Altered Carbon, a microchip is used as a backup data source for one’s consciousness that could be uploaded into a new human body, called a “sleeve.” This technology was taken a step further in Black Mirror, which not only used this technology to store memories, but also to allow for instant live streaming and sharing of past experiences. While this technology is still a relatively distant feat of engineering, research may one day reach the point where the uploading of one’s consciousness is not only possible, but effortless. In preparation for this day, we must understand the possible ramifications such a technology has on our society as a whole.

28 | Brain and Behavior

From an ethical standpoint, this potential technology can have positive effects as well as negative ramifications. As a result of this technology, the world would be able to have endless access to the minds of geniuses such as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. This would allow for continued advancements in various fields of study—expertise in everything from quantum physics to theoretical mathematics would suddenly be at a fingertip’s reach. Furthermore, people would be able to avoid extreme pain and severe diseases by simply switching their physical bodies to a new sleeve. Cortical stacks would be the new “Fountain of Youth,” allowing for the immortality of one’s consciousness. In cases where crime is involved, there would be solid evidence that could be used to ultimately help determine the culprit and the consequences they must face. Cortical stacks could result in the ability to revive individuals who have passed away and allow them to resume their day-to-day lives. Cortical stacks could even replace expensive end-oflife care that only extend the time prior to one’s inevitable death.


Design by: Aaron Dykxhoorn

Despite their many perceived benefits, cortical stacks can create issues with privacy. If one’s entire memory is accessible by a device, it could allow for others to gain access to every single thing the individual has ever experienced. Furthermore, if collected in a similar fashion to our personal data today, cortical stacks would give corporations powerful tools to influence our decision making for a profit. With companies such as Amazon and Google that can gather and use massive amounts of data, all the information from one’s memory could be used for targeted advertising. Memory is also very subjective due to the fact that it takes on the point of view of the individual; thus, memory can be influenced by a number of factors such as emotion. This can be seen in the number of overturned cases that were originally based on eyewitness testimony. As one’s memory is not always accurate, it could affect the use of memory as an accurate method of evidence gathering. One’s memory may even be influenced due to their awareness of the memorycollecting device present in their body. Moreover, the shifting of identities through “sleeves” can create problems with identification as people would constantly be changing faces and bodies. Furthermore, once developed, this technology would likely not be evenly distributed throughout the globe, potentially causing greater increases in poverty gaps. If used in a similar manner to that seen on Altered Carbon, an entire market would likely arise for people selling bodies for others to be re-uploaded into upon death. In the economically poorer regions of the world, this would lead to an immense proliferation in human trafficking and the creation of “body farms” where children are raised only for their bodies to be sold at a later time. All in all, the vast capabilities of upcoming neurological technology such as cortical stacks, neural dust, and other innovations necessitate us to be informed and mindful of how this machinery impacts our lives and society as a whole.

Ethics | 29


Design by: Aaron Dykxhoorn

e ls Fa

Synthetic dawn gradually drew the final curtain upon the production of night Painting the horizon’s countenance with Carmine 4, Maroon 5, and Gold 3 Newly chiseled pillars of luminous clouds exhumed from twilight August towers, perfected constructs of ivory fractal bricks Shoulder like Atlas alone, the weight of a simulated sky Never has a farce been so exquisitely composed But through human touch the truth is exposed

: By

en Ed

Pixelated blooms sway in spurious zephyrs Iridescent nymphs swimming in seamless leas of verdant lies Their alluring hues flowing like honeyed words from duplicitous petal lips Unmarred and unchanged by neither sleet, shower, nor shine Perpetually painted the auric of apples in Ladon’s grove But perfection is always the Judas to artificiality Betraying them as a meadow of fantasy

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Mendacious lakes draped in Azures so pure That the world is made Narcissus in their limpid virtual sheen Deftly craft a Siren’s beck and call, the unnatural melody of perfection Mesmerizing in both winter sun and summer snow, nary a flaw in its facade They are twins to the flora abound, both steeped in false dreams With such efforts towards trying to deceive They almost make you wish to believe

Envious of the captivating sculpted ground, The capricious clouds grew too quickly ominous grey, portending their wrath Inundating the ground with specious rains, perfectly carved spheres of aqua and white Plastic neon beams coruscate out from interspersed drops of sun Rain can flow with the ease of wine from Dionysus’ urn Yet tears cannot fall here no matter the season The code cannot abide such treason Shards of a shattered heart always evanesce As if the organ was never there in our chests Bleeding from the lacerations imposed by our own whips of words As if the ruby magma never roiled with ardency beneath the soil of our skin Instead only electrical hoarfrost running through the former veins is known Coerced into happiness alone, an existence banal As if we were never truly alive at all The program numbs with nothing left to feel But was our first world ever any more real?

30 | Brain and Behavior


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Wr d a Cr itin edi g t?

Design by: Sandra Taboada

MIC 280: UMIAMI SCIENTIFICA MAGAZINE WRITER

●● Completion will fulfill 1/4 mandatory writing credits

To recEIve credit, one must: ●● Write two 200-300 word articles

●● Learn to communicate science to a general audience

●● Write one 1000-word article (full spread)

●● Publish writing in University of Miami’s Scientifica Magazine

●● Revise articles with Scientifica’s editorial team

●● Looks great on a CV or Resume

●● Submit articles to be graded by STEM faculty member on Scientfica’s Board of Faculty Advisors

●● Enrollment in the course is free and may be done at any time

For more information, please contact our Editorial Advisor: Mr. Roger Williams, M.S. Ed. (riwill@miami.edu) *Currently, Arts and Sciences is the only school accepting. Some may follow. *Summer session registration may result in charges if this is the only course taken.

Ethics | 31


-Natalia Pluta

32 | Brain and Behavior


AN WE REALLY PRINT THE FUTURE? Since it was invented in the 1980s, 3D printing has revolutionized how we see the world today. It is widely applicable across various disciplines and has a plethora of benefits associated with it. In the medical field alone, it is predicted to grow at 17.7% and be worth $3.5 billion by 2025! From its ability to replace human organ transplants and speed up surgical procedures to its capacity to create artificially living tissues, 3D printing is recreating the world as we know it. The technique holds such incredible promise, which begs the question: how does it work? 3D printing uses digital modeling and assembles a new object by layering compatible materials in complex patterns. For instance, the European company Xilloc uses a CT scan and calcium phosphate, a dominant component of bones, to create bone implants that fuse with the original connective tissue. Although still in animal testing, this method could entirely replace the arduous process of bone grafts, effectively eliminating the need for bone donors, which involve very costly and time consuming procedures. Bioprinting, is a type of 3D printing that relies on computer-guided pipettes that deposits biological material taken directly from the living specimen. In the future, scientists are hoping it will eradicate the biggest problem associated with transplantation, autoimmune system rejection, because the original material would come from within the person. This would immensely facilitate bone marrow transplants along with similar procedures and 3D printing would be the ultimate solution. Thus, from the possibility of completely eliminating the chance of autoimmune rejection to bioprinting human cardiac tissue, 3D printing holds incredible promise in treating medical conditions. For instance, at Harvard University, a team has successfully printed living tissue with blood vessels. In addition, at Wake Forest University, researchers were able to bioprint

biodegradable materials, cultivate cells, and successfully transplant those cells to a poorly functioning bladder. Although we are currently unable to print complex organs such as the heart or kidney, rapid technological advancements suggest they are within grasp in the near future. Regardless, 3D printing is already saving and changing lives. For example, the development of medical 3D individualized models has given experts a better understanding about the development and spread of cancerous tumors. Additionally, physicians are now able to prepare and practice for an arduous surgery, thereby drastically reducing operating time and increasing rates of success. Recently it has also been possible to print precise sterile surgical instruments such as scalpels and forceps at a significantly lower cost. Another realm where 3D printing is emerging is in the field of prosthetics. Especially in war-torn areas, such as Uganda or Sudan, prosthetics are essential for those who have lost a limb and strive to live normal lives. Traditionally, the creation of prosthetics has been a very long, expensive process. However, 3D printing has significantly lowered the cost and sped up the process. Organizations such as Robohand and E-Nable have been able to create customized limbs and change countless lives. Although prosthetics have tremendously increased the wellbeing of amputees, allowing them to function almost normally, they also have a negative psychological effect on the patient such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and phantom limb phenomenon, especially among pediatric patients. Nevertheless, with the ability to print bones, as well as skin grafts and tissues, the future of deformity correction may be headed in a new direction. One has to wonder whether we will be able to combine the printing of bone and tissue to give those with limb deformities or amputations a brand new, 3D-printed, functional body part that will be indistinguishable from one’s own limb.

Design by: Leila Thompson

C

3D printing holds incredible promise in treating medical conditions

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Cancer’s ImpaCKt A Child and their Parent’s Cancer

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-Sandra “Peach” Taboada

hroughout your childhood, you learn and grow through exploration and play. Without a worry in the world, you run outside with your friends, ready to come back into your house to be greeted by your mother and father, ready with snacks. As ordinary as this scene may seem, it is not the reality for a large population of children in the United States. In the U.S., over five million children have been impacted by a parent’s cancer. This statistic represents all of the children who were forced to grow up much faster than they should have, and who had to develop not through exploration and play, but rather through hardship and grief. The impact that a parent’s cancer has on children affects their psychological well-being as they develops over time, with research showing variance in their growth depending on which parent is affected, mother or father, as well as the gender and age of the child at the time of the parent’s diagnosis. Many studies and findings have come to light suggesting that the children of parents with cancer are at risk for developing psychological disturbances. High levels of anxiety and difficulty speaking about the illness are two of the most common consequences. These children require a significant amount of support to understand their parents’ illnesses and cope throughout the grieving process. With this situation being so new to many families, there’s no easy way to communicate things related to cancer to these children. At the University of Miami, a chapter of Camp Kesem helps kids in the South Florida region cope with their parents’ cancers. As a national organization, Kesem serves over 9,000 children impacted by a parent’s cancer. With a free week of summer camp, these kids are surrounded by supportive counselors and other children experiencing the same heartache of their parent’s cancer. This week of camp fosters growth and resilience in these children, allowing for an outlet for difficult conversations while facilitating a week of fun so that they can be kids once again. These experiences are lifechanging, as seen through the development of the kids

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that have gone through Camp Kesem. As a former camper, and now counselor, Matthew “Bow” Calle understands just how important a program like this is in impacting a child’s growth. At 14 years old, Bow’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. “Going through high school with that in mind, it was just very hard because I didn’t know many people that had a similar situation, and as far as I knew no one else in my family had cancer before.” The very foundation of his family felt different, “so it was just very weird to think of the solid rock of my family being harmed by this thing that I didn’t know the cause of.” This thought is common amongst the demographic that Camp Kesem serves. The confusion, concern, and worry make it difficult for children to grow at a normal pace, and it makes the conversation about cancer more difficult to initiate, especially if no one around is able to relate to what a child is going through. “There was no one else that I knew that was going through the same thing, and then my mom brought up this camp for kids whose parents have had cancer. At first I didn’t want to go, but I started doing it


Charmander realizes how much of an impact this experience still has on him to this day. As he has talked to his father about these experiences, he realizes how much time they missed out on together in his childhood. With his grandfather’s illness, it was much more apparent to him as a child. Because his grandfather was diagnosed two months before his father and shared a room with his grandson, Charmander experienced a lot more of his grandpa’s suffering. “It’s hard when you’re a kid, because your parents and your grandparents, they’re kind of like your heroes. So it’s hard to imagine them in a situation where they’re not being superheroes. I saw him in an agonizing state I really wasn’t ready for, and it was difficult to cope with. Looking back at it now, it’s an experience like this that helps me realize the significance of a place like Camp Kesem.” Even without having the experience of Camp Kesem, Charmander finds that this negative experience helped him grow in a positive way. “I had to grow up a bit quicker, and that has its downsides because, of course, a child shouldn’t have to deal with those types of things. But, I found myself caring for him and comforting him, and switching roles with him. It definitely taught me a lot about passion and empathy. It has its negatives and its positives.” Overall, a parent’s cancer impacts a child in a broader range of ways than one can ever imagine. Resources like Camp Kesem do truly have an impact on the growth and development of these kids, with 86% of children becoming more confident in their ability to address cancer after experiencing Kesem. The importance of being able to have conversations about cancer and grow from those experiences is essential to the psychological development of children.

Design by: Sandra Taboada

because my brother was interested, and I hadn’t really talked to him about what had happened with my mom before… I didn’t know how he was feeling about it and I didn’t know what he was going through, so I ended up going with him.” That decision helped Bow understand that he wasn’t alone in his struggle, and it helped him better understand how his brother felt. Above all else, it made the conversation about cancer easier to manage. “It’s good to know that there are other people going through the same thing. My brother definitely benefited from it too because he had never talked about it. I remember a counselor coming over to my room and telling me ‘Your brother is breaking down and he wants to see you,’ and I talked to him for the first time about it. It was definitely something that has brought us closer together.” As a first year counselor of Camp Kesem, Franco “Charmander” Terrero didn’t have the resource of Kesem as he dealt with his father’s and grandfather’s lung cancer diagnoses. In his experience, his parents were not as communicative with his father’s cancer, until three years after. “While he was going through his chemotherapy, in order to keep me safe since I was young, only 11 years old, they told me that he went away on a business trip. He was away for three months getting chemo, and when he came back he told me he had a bad haircut, since he was growing his hair back.” Looking back at it now,

If you or someone you know has been impacted by a parent’s cancer, or if you want to find out how to get involved, visit campkesem.org/miami, or contact: miami@campkesem.org.

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Design by: Sandra Taboada

Experiencing an “Aha” Moment

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MAGINE THIS: you’ve finally figured out how to solve that ridiculously tricky calculus problem that had you stuck for hours, or you just got the punchline of that joke your friend told an hour ago. You’ve just experienced insight. In common terms, insight is that “aha” moment we experience when we are finally able to gain a deep understanding of a concept. Insight is integral to the learning process and lies at the core of scientific discovery. Legend has it that Greek mathematician and scientist Archimedes jumped from his bath and ran naked through the streets shouting “Eureka!” after his insight into how to measure the volume of objects by submerging them in water. Scientists have been studying insight since the 1950s, but in the last decade, tools of cognitive neuroscience have allowed the study of insight to reveal more than it ever has. NSF-funded cognitive neuroscientist John Kounios and his colleague Mark Beeman recently developed a task that allows them to study insight in the laboratory. Volunteers were asked to solve dozens of word puzzles while their brains were scanned with either electroencephalogram (EEG) or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). One word puzzle they solved was an anagram, in which letters in a word are rearranged and have to be properly ordered to form a new word (LISTEN=SILENT). The volunteers were instructed to push a button at the moment they solved the puzzle and report whether they arrived at the solution in a burst of insight or a more planned strategy. They found a unique pattern of brain activity in volunteers who reported experiencing

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-Amirah Rashed

insight: low frequency oscillations in the right visual cortex followed by a burst of high frequency oscillations over the right superior temporal gyrus of the brain. Let’s break this down into simpler terms. The low frequency oscillations in the right visual cortex mirror the effect that someone has when closing their eyes to concentrate more deeply. This deep concentration usually facilitates creativity. Since the right superior temporal gyrus is involved in conceptual integration, the high frequency oscillations could explain how and why activity in different brain regions is integrated to form a single perception. This research may have you wondering about its practical applications. Could we harness this information to enhance insight in the brain? Probably not. Kounios recommends positive emotions to cultivate moments of insight. However, many business owners are interested in using this research to improve worker creativity. In China, business leaders want to use this research to promote entrepreneurship and potentially solve social problems. As for Kounios and his team, their next foray isfinding the neural basis of individual differences in insight, identifying specific neurotransmitter systems involved in insightbased problem-solving, and determining whether drugs that target the brain could improve insight. Even in light of these advances, insight still depends on a solid foundation of knowledge from which new connections form between concepts. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to experiencing an “aha” moment, so keep on exploring.


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Br eaking 5

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-Jeremy Garg

Psy c

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OR MUCH OF HUMAN HISTORY, psychedelics have been the subject of fascination, curiosity, and importance. Psychedelics are substances that increase the amount of sensations that reach the brain, in turn “increasing consciousness” and often producing hallucinations. Across time, they have served in countless spiritual and cultural customs. They have also been used for recreational purposes and are banned in many countries. Many laymen, scientists, and entrepreneurs are now studying what happens during the bizarre experiences that psychedelics can induce. They are testing these compounds in a new, innovative way as well: to treat mental health. To be clear, this is not a new phenomenon, not even within the United States. As far back as after World War II, there were studies into using these drugs as treatment for PTSD and depression. U.S. government regulations have not stopped people from seeking out these novel experiences and treatments. One famous treatment is the use of Ibogaine to treat addiction. Ibogaine comes from a plant originally found in West Africa. While it is illegal in the United States, most Americans who seek the treatment head to Mexico. An entire industry exists there, consisting of centers designed to treat patients with various substance use disorders. One such center is Clear Sky Recovery. A visit to their website shows a luxurious villa, and promises a “range of reasonably-priced, highly effective ibogaine treatment programs, administered in a safe, supportive and peaceful environment.” Centers such as this one seek to project a professional image, one that is closer to a medical facility than to a spiritual retreat. Proponents say that the drug has the ability to reduce opioid withdrawal. The studies, while promising, are limited at this stage, and the underlying mechanisms are not understood. Additionally, there is worry about a high mortality rate associated with Ibogaine. It appears to be dangerous to people with heart issues, but it is hard to know exactly who is at risk given the rarity of the treatment.

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Design by: Lucero Barrantes

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Addiction is not the only area of mental health being treated with psychoactive substances. In fact, many common street hallucinogens such as psilocybin (mushrooms), LSD, and MDMA all are being studied in clinical settings. However experimenters are warned that trying to mimic such trials can be dangerous because it is impossible to know what is in a drug bought in a non-clinical setting. A study at New York University was conducted to assess psilocybin treatment for cancer patients. The effects on anxiety were profound, the authors wrote, explaining, “in conjunction with psychotherapy, single moderate-dose psilocybin produced rapid, robust and enduring anxiolytic and anti-depressant effects in patients with cancer-related psychological distress.” Additional studies have been undertaken at Johns Hopkins and Imperial College. Both suggest positive effects of psilocybin in regard to depression and lifestyle. However, despite popular headlines, the science is not yet settled, as the mechanisms of psilocybin are not understood. Additionally critics have pointed out that the studies thus far are limited. Another criticism has been that many of the studies did not include placebos or account for other factors that can help mental health. Yet another psychedelic is derived from ayahuasca, a plant from South America which contains the hallucinogenic compound DMT. It is acid to help with depression, a common theme amongst psychedelic drug treatments. However, it is difficult to tell why these treatments would help depression. According to Live Science author Rachael Rettner, “as for how ayahuasca and other drugs help with psychiatric conditions, there are likely many factors involved. But one study suggests that feelings of spirituality, and how they related to people’s ability to regulate their emotions, may play a role.” There is still much work to be done on truly understanding how these compounds can help people. Many questions remain, and scrutiny must be applied to what is truly medicine and what is recreational. Additionally, as more is understood about the mechanisms and interactions of psychedelics with the human brain, it is possible that certain aspects can be isolated to create targeted medicine. In the meantime, research continues with the hope that results will be fruitful for those who can benefit.

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BUILDING THE FUTURE RESEARCH PROFILE ON SAHIL VERMA -Trevor Birenbaum

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n any given evening, there’s a decent chance that Sahil Verma, a junior Chemistry major from Pensacola, Florida, can be found in shop. Not out at the mall shopping, but in the woodshop or the forge. He could be carving wood, modifying a suit of armor that he bought at a garage sale, or anything in between, and if you see him on campus, he might just be tinkering with his latest project in his spare time. And if not, he might be telling stories, playing Dungeons and Dragons, or boxing in the gym. Sahil’s interest in science and engineering started as early as six years old, when his mother bought him a small chemistry set from a toy store. He particularly remembers an experiment where a grape would float in salt water but sink in tap water. Less interesting to discover was the fact that the indicator methylene blue doesn’t taste that good, “but that’s just the way science goes,” he says. Over time, he learned about the scientific method and began to work on more ambitious projects. Sahil thinks that his love for creating and building started the day he discovered a box of railroad ties near a train track by his house. Interested in what he could make with them, he got some rudimentary parts from a local hardware store and assembled a makeshift forge. He kept practicing basic smithing techniques and learned about other ways of making interesting contraptions out of simple parts, and eventually found himself building electric-powered cars that could travel up to forty miles per hour in his high school engineering team. Sahil’s love for building and research (which he describes as his number one passion) have continued at UM, where his first research paper discussed how he developed a coronary stent using a beta-titanium-gold alloy inspired by material science eresearch from Rice University that could outperform current stenting implants, a topic he will discuss at a conference in Amsterdam later this year. Recently, he traveled to Venice, Italy, to present findings regarding the discovery of coronary sinus regurgitation in patients with left ventricular dysfunction in the heart. According to Sahil’s work, patients with sleep apnea are more susceptible to having heart attacks.

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Design by: Aaron Dykxhoorn | Photogrpahy by: Fabiana De Luca

Most recently, Sahil has studied Ménière’s disease, which little things that can happen without expecting causes hearing impairment and tinnitus, inspired by the ordinary.” a diagnosis in his family. Sponsored by UM’s PRISM Inspired by his love of research, Sahil plans to research fund, Sahil is working to develop a method to alapply to MD-PhD programs across the country, leviate symptoms of Ménière’s disease using an intracoHe attributes a large part of his character to his chlear polymeric nanoparticle technique. In this techresearch. If he ever finds a problem in his daily nique, a doctor administers a medication such as bumex life that seemingly has no solution, he will use or mexiletine through the eardrum and then through the the same analytical techniques as in the lab to round window of the inner ear. The nanoparticles, which approach it. Research and its methods are so are laden with the medication, are ingrained in his day-toResearch doesn’t always pan out the day life that he could not injected into the scala tympani, way that you initially expect (in fact, possibly imagine a time where they will then distribit rarely does). You might not make without it. Going about life ute throughout the inner ear. a radical discovery or significant Nanoparticles are used because without thinking analytibreakthrough, but persistence is they can increase the half-life cally would seem so bland. of their associated medication, necessary in order to mature as a He hopes to maintain these meaning fewer injections will be scientist. With every mistake, you can attitudes and apply them necessary. Currently, most of his learn something that makes you better in his future career, whatwork is theoretical, and data are ever that is. His number than you were before. collected through simulations and one hope is to combine his other indirect testing procedures. While indirect, these passion for research with his love of medicine, programs are modeled after similar ones used at NASA, and to help people like his mother who are sufand he has achieved very promising results. Sahil plans fering from incurable and untreatable illnesses. to eventually have the method he devised tested so that a To any student hoping to go down the same path treatment procedure could be developed for future use in as he, he recommends finding as many probpatients around the world. lems as you can to solve, and to work out your own unique methods to develop your critical Despite all of his successes, Sahil acknowledges all of the thinking skills. All you need is the passion to get difficulties that he has experienced. He went through started, the drive to continue, and the ability to more than twenty different designs when he was dealways learn from your mistakes to be able to signing his coronary stent; some were stronger axially, change the world. some were stronger latitudinally, some were too thick, some were too thin, and so on. It almost got to a point where he was ready to give up, but he eventually found a design that worked. “Apathy is the antithesis of science,” he says, “but you can’t make a beautiful piece of art without making mistakes along the way. You need to look for all the

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Breaking Barriers Research Profile on Sita Ramaswamy -Anastasiya Plotnikova

“I like being on the edge of new discoveries.”

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Sita Ramaswamy, a junior doublemajoring in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Criminology is no stranger to breaking barriers—in more ways than one.

ITA’S EVOLUTION FROM CURIOUS beginner to skillful investigator started with her chemistryfocused IB program back in Orlando. Once at UM, Sita was introduced to nanotherapeutic strategies in a lab at Miller. Sita’s intrigue with investigation, born out of a passion for knowledge, has set her on an unique pathway. Her passion for discovery—which often entails coming up with something out of nothing—has earned her a position in Dr. Michal Toborek’s Brain-Blood-Barrier (BBB) lab at the Miller medical campus. Currently, Sita spends 3 days a week at Miller, a commitment she carved out of her already busy schedule that includes night shifts at Richter’s research services. Starting her sophomore year, Sita has been grappling with PubMed papers, PI’s, post-docs, learning lab techniques, and shadowing Dr. Luc Bertrand, a postdoc in Toborek’s lab. Sita wasted no time carving a name for herself as one of the select few undergrads in a large lab already staffed with 3 faculty and multiple postdocs. The lab’s main focus is molecular work, which involves in-vitro cell culture studies alongside animal studies. The lab aims to explain what makes the blood brain barrier so good at its job of protecting the brain from pathogens. In particular, their research explores how the HIV virus can compromise the integrity of the barrier. HIV is one of the few diseases that can make the BBB more permeable. While most HIV work is done in the context of the immune system, Toborek’s lab explores HIV’s effects on the permeability of the Brain-Blood Barrier. Sita’s project focuses on determining what genetic pathway HIV exploits in order to make cells stop

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expressing the tight junction genes. Once this occurs, the membrane becomes more permeable. The logistics involved a lot of human cell culturing in flasks and pipetting. To narrow down which pathway HIV could take advantage of, Sita performs either transfection, (the silencing of genes via silencing RNA) or nucleofection (subjecting the cell to an electric current to induce permeability). In analysis, assays and Western blot analysis are done to measure protein levels in cells. While Sita was working with HIV, the particular strain she used in lab can’t actually infect humans. Even though she can’t be infected, Sita has to don 2 pairs of gloves and a gown. “It’s like I am going in for surgery,” she jokes. Sita’s independent project has allowed her to recognize the importance of doing your research and investing time into the inquiry process. Starting with just a few key terms, answers to questions like “How is the brain degenerating?” can become more attainable. The implications of the type of Sita’s research span far and wide. Currently, the major problem is getting drugs into brain—and if the pathway that HIV uses can be manipulated to get drugs into the brain, that would be a major game-changer. “Our research is different—once HIV starts degenerating the brain, there’s not much that can be done. It’s not a heavily studied structure.” This past winter, Sita presented her research at the Miami 2019 Winter Symposium for HIV Research held at the Miami Convention Center. The HIV Research symposium hosted HIV researchers from all around the world to present their findings on developing vaccines against HIV. While everyone there discussed the HIV


she can integrate the intriguing world of forensics in her future career. As for this summer, Sita is applying for a few prestigious internships while keeping the lab in mind. In the little free time she has, Sita has managed to teach herself calligraphy and engages her body in active pursuits such as boxing and hiking. “But hiking”- she jokes; “I have to travel to hike...” Thanks, Florida topography. Clearly, Sita leaves no rock unturned - both academically and recreationally. Her curiosity for virtually everything she comes across is a key skill she encourages any budding scientist to acquire. Sita advises all those interested in participating in research to take initiative by reaching out and applying themselves. “Cells can die for no reason, and you have to learn to deal with it.” No good thing comes without challenges, but learning how to think critically and creatively is key in experimentation. Understanding the breadth of research done in the lab and connecting with faculty, post-docs and graduate students who can volunteer their time to teach an undergrad (it takes a long time for an undergraduate to learn the ropes) are also all essential for a successful and rewarding research experience.

Design by: Samantha Mosle | Photography by Fabiana De Luca

retrovirus in terms of the immune system, Sita’s poster was an outlier as it discussed HIV in terms of the BBB. The challenge, as with most novel work, begins as early as designing a protocol. Plainly put, it’s like a funnel—starting broad and narrowing with each step. “There’s a lot of literature that goes into doing independent research. A lot of speculation—no one had an answer. Formulating an experimental plan starts out very general. From here, we had a few terms and some previous literature, nothing was clearly delineated.” Sita is currently part of UM’s 7-year BS/PhD program, but the program is not binding. When I ask where Sita is considering applying, she reaches for her laptop - the top is tastefully stickered with things like “Women belong in the kitchen LAB,” “Verified Coffee Addict,” and “The Sarcasm Foundation: Like we need your support.” The contents of her laptop proved to be even more impressive as she shows me a color-coded excel spreadsheet listing things like PI, program, and stipend. Among Sita’s list of 15 schools with noteworthy pathology and immunology programs are big names like Vanderbilt and Harvard. With Sita’s criminology major, she hopes to explore how

“Make time for the lab, and always have a plan B when it comes to the future. My academic and career goals are kind of a mixed bag. There’s like a 6-way intersection. That’s what a PhD is for—so I can be qualified for whatever I pursue.”

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Brain and Behavior