Week In Review: Spreading the Word

UNC-TV Science Week In Review: September 26, 2013
Spreading the Word


E = mc squared: This simple expression equating mass and energy is one of the most widely-known scientific equations. Now, imagine if Albert Einstein had published it in a journal, and the paper just sat there collecting dust, where no-one but other physicists had access to it. 

It’s weird to think about, right? But knowledge gets buried all the time, and more and more scientists are recognizing the need to inform people about the existing body of knowledge and new discoveries. Whole fields of research, especially in medicine, are dedicated to better educate people on the latest knowledge and ideas and to allow people easier access to information.

This week saw several such studies and initiatives in North Carolina.

UNC and Wake Forest to Study Anti-Tobacco Communication

Possibly the greatest example of science outreach has been the movement to educate the public about the hazards of smoking tobacco. Television commercials, billboards and warning labels have been telling Americans for decades about how cigarettes cause cancer. Now, the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration have teamed up to form Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science (TCORS) to better inform policy makers and the public about the dangers of tobacco. Two of the 14 TCORS will be located in North Carolina.

Faculty from UNC Medical Center, UNC – Chapel Hill and Wake Forest University Hospital will receive up to $8 million from the two government agencies this year for two projects. The first, in the Center for Tobacco Communication, will research how to communicate the risk associated with hookahs, electronic cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and the chemicals found naturally in tobacco and smoke. Researchers will also examine how to communicate FDA authority and increase the credibility of anti-smoking ads. Finally, they will examine how best to communicate anti-smoking messages to minority and LGBT communities.

The other center, for Lung Health, will research the specific mechanisms behind tobacco-induced lung dehydration. Dehydration can cause chronic bronchitis, impaired immune function, lung inflammation and overproduction of mucus and causes disease in 64 million people worldwide. The researchers aim to determine exactly which chemicals in cigarette smoke and other tobacco products contribute to lung dehydration. The eventual goal of this project is to better inform how tobacco products should be regulated by the FDA.

The FDA and NIH will award $53 million to the 14 centers this year with a potential of $273 million over the next five years.

Not-So-Personal Trainers Help with Peripheral Artery Disease
Peripheral Artery Disease, a constricting of blood vessels in the legs and other extremities, affects 12 million Americans. As the most common cause is a buildup of fat in these vessels, called atherosclerosis, exercise often helps to decrease the pain associated with PAD. Previous studies have shown that supervised exercise, like with a personal trainer or physical therapist, is effective at decreasing PAD pain. But most insurance plans do not cover personal trainers, and unsupervised exercise is not as effective.

A new study from Wake Forest University now shows that weekly group sessions can help patients with PAD. The study took two groups of adults over 65 and gave one a weekly group session to talk about exercising at home, and the other a weekly session about nutrition. After six months of sessions, the group talking about exercise was able to walk 53.5 meters further than the nutrition group in six minutes.

The researchers believe that beyond the instruction in exercise, the exercise group used the group support dynamic of talking to each other about exercise, to motivate them to exercise on their own, cutting down on the need for personal trainers. The researchers are now looking into whether mobile technology can do the same thing. The findings appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A Better Customized Search
My favorite science blog, besides Frank Graff’s NC Science Now Reporter’s Blog, is Phenomena at National Geographic. But every time I do a Google search for “phenomena” I get Wikipedia and dictionary.com entries as the first results.

Computer searches are easily tricked by synonyms, and while search engines are currently using refined searches based on what people commonly search for, that effect isn’t well personalized. So the unfortunate person who is looking for a shoe store called “Go Heels” will have some scrolling to do.

But computer scientists from NC State University have developed a new search refinement method, using what they call associated concepts. Their method evaluates what you search based not only on what you previously searched, but also the concepts related to what you previously searched. 

Here’s an example: Let’s say you search “Nicola Tesla” and “Thomas Edison,” the scientists who mastered and promoted AC and DC electricity respectively. Now you search, “AC/DC.”  Common searches would direct you right to the band, but the researchers’ new system would take Edison and Tesla and think of “electricity” and you would get search results related to differences between AC and DC electricity.

The researchers will present their system at the IEEE International Conference on Big Data in October.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.