Love and Loss on the Ice
By Matt Windsor
In his new book, Lost Antarctica, polar biologist Jim McClintock, Ph.D., offers plenty of reasons to be concerned about the fate of the frozen continent: a few trillion, at least.
That’s the approximate number of sea butterflies currently floating in the chilly waters of the Southern Ocean. The tiny, shelled creatures serve as the base for an intricate food chain that extends upward to the mighty blue whale. Hundreds of species depend on the sea butterfly, but it is under assault on a massive scale. Rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, transferred to the polar oceans by complex climate effects and simple chemistry, are making the sea butterfly’s home waters more acidic.
When the pH reaches a critical point, it will dissolve the animals’ protective shells—killing them and risking the collapse of an entire ecosystem. Acid seas are the “other CO2 problem,” McClintock says—one that, unlike the problem of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, has received little media attention.
Lost Antarctica offers a host of other reasons why we need to sweat the seemingly small stuff now occurring in this icy world. Combining the latest scientific data with personal observations from two decades of Antarctic research, McClintock lays bare the intricate inner workings of his beloved continent. In Antarctica, he explains, everything from microscopic phytoplankton to state-sized ice shelves is interconnected—and under threat.
Educating Truckers on the Go
By Todd Dills
When UAB nurse practitioner Karen Heaton, Ph.D., met her husband, a long-haul owner-operator, she discovered that the nation’s truckers carry a host of unmet health needs along with their cargo. In particular, “I was struck when I read that individuals who are sleep-deprived and driving have the same levels of impairment as those who are intoxicated,” Heaton says.
Now Heaton, an assistant professor in the UAB School of Nursing, is testing an online intervention program focusing on sleep and fatigue management among the nation’s truck drivers. She has been visiting industry trade shows and reaching out to trucking companies and associations to recruit drivers to participate in the study, which is funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
Heaton’s goal is to arm truck drivers with the information they need to recognize the importance of sleep for safety, well-being, and, ultimately, baseline human health. If the online model proves to be effective in reinforcing the basics of sleep among participants and encouraging them to modify their behavior, Heaton hopes that trucking companies will add it to driver-safety training. The program could even become part of the first health-related requirements for Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)-regulated training, something every new long-haul driver would take in the interest of public safety.
Energetics Research Could Provide Clues
By Jeff Hansen
Is obesity an adaptive response to poverty? Playmobil people explain in under a minute in this latest edition of Science in 60 Seconds.
In the summer of 2011, UAB researcher David Allison, Ph.D., often hiked up the Blue Trail of Oak Mountain State Park to Peavine Falls.
It turns out that he was starting a journey down an unconventional path.
Accompanied by postdocs, graduate students, family, and his dog, Gigi, Allison used the hikes to launch wide-ranging scientific give-and-takes, dreaming up hypothetical experiments and asking “what-if” questions about the origins of obesity.
In turn, those questions have led to one of UAB’s most unusual grants—an $8-million, five-year Transformative Research Award from the National Institutes of Health, the first ever for the university. These grants, the NIH says, target “exceptionally innovative” research projects that “tend to be inherently risky.” Loosely speaking, the funding enables researchers to gamble on big-payoff ideas.
Perception Is Everything
The ambitious idea from Allison’s team proposes that an organism’s perception of its environment has the power to make the organism change how quickly it ages (even though it may not be aware it is doing so). Furthermore, perception of the environment could make an organism alter its efforts to seek food and store more of that food as energy—in the form of caches of nuts and berries for birds, for example, or body fat in humans and mice.
Body fat is a key term, because ultimately, this UAB-led research seeks to understand one of the great public health puzzles of the past 20 years—why America has seen an explosion in life-shortening obesity. In Alabama, one of the fattest states, a higher rate of obesity among poorer groups of people creates health disparities. Obesity also increases rates of some cancers.
These problems are a focus for the Office of Energetics in the UAB School of Public Health, which debuted in July 2011 and is headed by Allison, a psychologist who also serves as the school’s associate dean for science. Energetics research looks at why and how biological organisms acquire, store, and use metabolizable energy—which includes food and body fat.