Category Archives: University of Chicago

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Ancient rocks point to Earth’s crust forming way earlier

Counting strontium atoms in rocks from northern Canada, researchers have discovered evidence that the Earth’s continental crust could have formed hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought.

Continental crust is richer in essential minerals than younger volcanic rock, which would have made it significantly friendlier to supporting life.

“Our evidence, which squares with emerging evidence including rocks in western Australia, suggests that the early Earth was capable of forming continental crust within 350 million years of the formation of the solar system,” says Patrick Boehnke, a postdoctoral fellow in the geophysical sciences department at the University of Chicago.

“This alters the classic view, that the crust was hot, dry, and hellish for more than half a billion years after it formed.”

CHILI
Researchers used the CHicago Instrument for Laser Ionization (CHILI) to count strontium isotopes in rocks from Nuvvuagittuq, Canada. (Credit: Thomas Stephan/U. Chicago)

One of the open questions in geology is how and when some of the crust—originally all younger volcanic rock—changed into the continental crust we know and love, which is lighter and richer in silica.

The task is made harder because the evidence keeps getting melted and reformed over millions of years. One of the few places on Earth where you can find bits of crust from the very earliest epochs of Earth is in tiny flecks of apatite imbedded in younger rocks.

Luckily for scientists, some of these “younger” minerals (still about 3.9 billion years old) are zircons—very hard, weather-resistant minerals somewhat similar to diamonds.

“Zircons are a geologist’s favorite because these are the only record of the first three to four hundred million years of Earth. Diamonds aren’t forever—zircons are,” says Boehnke, first author of the paper, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Plus, researchers can date the zircons. “They’re like labeled time capsules,” says coauthor Andrew Davis, professor and chair of the geophysical sciences department at Chicago.

Scientists usually look at the different variants of elements, called isotopes, to tell a story about these rocks. They wanted to use strontium, which offers clues to how much silica was around at the time it formed. The only problem is that these flecks are absolutely tiny—about five microns across, the diameter of a strand of spider silk—and you have to count the strontium atoms one by one.

This was a task for an instrument that came online last year: the CHicago Instrument for Laser Ionization, or CHILI. The detector uses lasers that researchers can tune to selectively pick out and ionize strontium. When they used CHILI to count strontium isotopes in rocks from Nuvvuagittuq, Canada, they found the isotope ratio suggested plenty of silica was present when it formed.

How a hotter early Earth became the rocky planet it is today

This is important because the makeup of the crust directly affects the atmosphere, the composition of seawater, and nutrients available to any budding life hoping to thrive on planet Earth. It also may imply there were fewer meteorites than thought pummeling the Earth at this time, which would have made it hard for continental crust to form.

“Having continental crust that early changes the picture of early Earth in a number of ways,” says Davis, who is also a professor with the Enrico Fermi Institute. “Now we need a way for the geologic processes that make the continents to happen much faster; you probably need water and magma that’s about 600 degrees Fahrenheit less hot.”

Part of Earth’s crust spews out of arc volcano

Other researchers from the University of Chicago, the Argonne National Laboratory, UCLA, and the Berkeley Geochronology Center are coauthors of the paper. NASA funded the work.

Source: University of Chicago

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Light opens tiny ‘Ziploc bags’ for drug delivery

Researchers have created tiny, resealable synthetic packets similar to Ziploc bags that can release their contents on cue—in this case, when exposed to light of a particular wavelength. Such technology could be useful for medicine or other applications, the researchers say.

“One could imagine making these to custom-deliver medicine to specific parts of the body, or to release fertilizer or cleanup chemicals in the soil, for example,” says Juan de Pablo, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering.

The team designed a hollow synthetic packet that is just tens to hundreds of nanometers across—so tiny that thousands could sit side by side in the period at the end of this sentence.

The packet’s skin is made up of a double layer of two long molecules called polymers: The outer rind is water-soluble, while the inner layer is a glassy material that forms a rigid wall. The two polymers are linked by a single molecule that responds to light by changing its shape.

When researchers shine light on the packet, the linking molecules change shape, softening the glassy material that sits below and allowing the contents of the packet to slip out. Once the light turns off, the glass solidifies again and the packet is resealed.

The researchers imagine applications such as targeted medical treatments: Fill the packets with medicine, wait until they’re circulating in the body, then shine a light on the specific part of the body and watch the packets release the medicine.

Both parts of the molecule are biocompatible and already used in implants and medical treatments: The outside is polyethylene oxide, a polymer used in cosmetics, toothpaste and medications today; and the interior lining is polylactic acid, which can be derived from corn starch and degrades to lactic acid, a natural compound in the body.

The collaboration is expanding to explore more molecules that could be designed to react to different triggers, such as light, pressure, or chemical cues, which could expand the range of potential uses.

“The surprise was this insight that a single light-sensitive layer, measuring less than one nanometer but lying on top of otherwise very long molecules tightly packed onto a thick glass, can create a perturbation in the entire material,” de Pablo says.

A deeper understanding of such mechanisms could provide the foundations for more new materials with useful properties. De Pablo and his collaborators are using sophisticated molecular simulations to decipher those mechanisms, he says.

The research appears in Nature Chemistry. The research team also included researchers from the University of Massachusetts. The US Army Research Office funded the research.

Source: University of Chicago

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Listen: Gigantic telescope to hunt for universe’s birth

Wendy Freedman, who spent much of her career measuring the age of the universe, is now working on a project that may very well give scientists a chance to glimpse into its birth.

Freedman, a professor of astronomy & astrophysics at the University of Chicago, works in the field of observational cosmology, measuring the expansion rate of the universe. In 2001, she and a team of scientists found that the universe is around 13.7 billion years old—far more precise than the previous estimate in the 10- to 20-billion-year-old range.

Freedman was the founding leader from 2003 until 2015 of an international consortium of researchers and universities to build the world’s largest telescope high in the mountains of Chile. The Giant Magellan Telescope will be as tall as the Statue of Liberty when complete, and ten times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope—with the ability to look back at the dawn of the cosmos.

“In our field, the new developments have come with new technology,” Freedman says. “Without exception, from the time that Galileo first turned a telescope to the sky in 1609, every time we’ve built a new capability we’ve made new discoveries, which is why we’re so excited about this.”

The telescope, 80 feet in diameter and weighing more than 20 tons, will be the first of its kind to see fine details like a planet’s atmosphere, which could one day help discover life on other planets. The telescope is expected to be operational starting in 2024.

“If we really were able to show that there’s life on a planet outside of our own solar system, that will be one of the discoveries that will not only be exciting for astronomers but will change human kind’s perspective on our place in the universe,” Freedman says.

On this episode of the Big Brains podcast, Freedman discusses her research on measuring the age of the universe, the Giant Magellan Telescope, and the search for life outside our solar system.

See how glass chunks become a giant telescope mirror

Source: University of Chicago

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Listen: What biology can teach us about designing better stuff

From the smallest proteins to entire ecosystems, nature might be the most sophisticated engineer on Earth. Researchers like Rama Ranganathan are trying to uncover the basic design principles that govern biology and apply them through engineering.

He calls the field “evolutionary physics,” and the goal is to unlock the secrets of evolutionary history.

“Evolution has taken millions and millions of years,” says Ranganathan, a professor in the biochemistry and molecular biology department and the Institute for Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago. “How do we reproduce that in the laboratory?”

Ranganathan says biology has built “high-performance” systems that can adapt to their environment in ways of which human-designed technology could never dream. He believes there is a unifying theory that can explain the phenomenon and be utilized in bioengineering—from designer medicines based on individual genomes to biofuels driven by the same processes as photosynthesis.

“The problem is: If you start taking apart biological systems, since they are evolved systems, we don’t necessarily understand their design,” Ranganathan says. “The question is: How do you learn the simple rules that are underneath these seemingly very complex systems?”

On this episode of Big Brains, Ranganathan shares his pioneering research on evolutionary physics and explains why he believes biology is at a similar point today as engineering was two centuries ago during the Industrial Revolution.

Source: University of Chicago

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Listen: Expert sorts Medicaid expansion myth from fact

In 2008, when Oregon decided to expand its Medicaid program through a random lottery, Katherine Baicker struck research gold.

It presented the economic health care researcher with a unique opportunity to study the true costs and benefits of health care expansion through a system that provided a randomized trial. The project helped refute a number of myths surrounding health care expansion when its findings came out in 2013, amid renewed debates over health care in Washington.

“Public policy is rarely easy—there are always tradeoffs involved…”

“We could dispel the unduly optimistic view of the program, which is that Medicaid is such a wonderful program that it would make people healthier,” says Baicker, professor at the University of Chicago. “We could also dispel the unduly pessimistic view of the program, which is Medicaid is such a badly run program, it doesn’t pay providers enough, it doesn’t really improve the health of enrollees. What we found, of course, was something in the gray area.”

Baicker is considered one of the foremost experts in US health care policy. From 2005-2007 she was a Senate-confirmed member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and in 2017 she was named dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Baicker says that throughout her work, both as a researcher and alongside policymakers, she hopes she can be a “translator of evidence” and a trusted voice for this deeply contentious issue.

“Public policy is rarely easy—there are always tradeoffs involved,” Baicker says. “So when policymakers or reporters say, ‘So what does this tell us we should do about Medicaid?’ my answer is, it tells you you should weigh these costs against these benefits and decide what your priorities are and act accordingly.”

On this episode of Big Brains, Baicker shares what she and her team learned about the true costs and benefits of expanding health care, and provides insights into how to improve health care for all.

Source: University of Chicago

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Listen: What it’s like to discover a ‘missing link’ fish

Evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin says he’ll never forget the day in 2004 when he unearthed the discovery of a lifetime.

After spending six years in the Arctic searching for a fossil that could be a missing link between sea and land animals, Shubin finally found himself eye-to-eye with the 375-million-year-old creature that would come to be known as Tiktaalik roseae.

“I had staring at me the skull of a creature that looked part fish, part land-living animal,” Shubin says.

“What made it even better is that as we pulled that skeleton out, we started to see other parts of the body. We started to see its fins, and its fin had arm bones and wrist bones inside. We started to see its body, and it looked like it had both lungs and gills,” he says.

Shubin, a professor of organismal biology and anatomy, has shared his research in his book, Your Inner Fish (Vintage, 2008), and as host of a PBS series of the same name.

On the debut episode of the Big Brains podcast, Shubin discusses his discovery of Tiktaalik, what it meant for the understanding of human evolution, and the impact it’s had on the future of genetic research.

Most recently, Shubin’s research has taken him to Antarctica, where he will return later this year to search for more ancient fossils. “Questions are never-ending, and a life of discovery is a life of surprises,” Shubin says.

Big Brains is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Google Play.

Source: University of Chicago

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Big data can show us the ‘magic of cities’

Big data can help determine how to increase human connection in cities via things like increased transportation, while reducing obstacles like crime and segregation, research suggests.

Luis Bettencourt is a theoretical physicist by training, but rather than study black holes or string theory, he uses data to better understand cities in new and predictive ways.

He’s spent his career studying complex systems—first as a researcher at the Santa Fe Institute and now as director of the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation at the University of Chicago.

Those systems encompass any linked group of things, from ant hills to financial systems, and Bettencourt says cities are some of the most interested complex systems of change, the likes of which have rarely been seen in nature.

Cities make us forget what’s great about nature

“Cities are really the places where people come together and change is generated,” Bettencourt says. “Cities are really these nexus, these inventions by which humans can amplify their capabilities and create a lot of changes.”

On this episode of the podcast Knowledge Applied, we talk with Bettencourt on how he’s combining science and policy and using data to capture “the magic of cities for the common good.”

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher.

Source: University of Chicago

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Stable schedules for workers boost retail sales

Giving sales associates more stable schedules leads to increased sales and labor productivity, according to a new study.

Working in partnership with retailer the Gap, the research is the first randomized, controlled experiment designed to shift low-wage, hourly jobs toward more stable schedules.

“[A shifting schedule] makes it hard to fulfill responsibilities on and off the job…”

The intervention produced a high return on investment, increasing median sales by 7 percent and labor productivity by 5 percent—challenging the widely held assumption that schedule instability for part-time and full-time employees is inevitable in the volatile retail sector.

“Scheduling practices in retail jobs are often characterized by hours that fluctuate week to week and day to day. This makes it hard to fulfill responsibilities on and off the job,” says study coauthor Susan Lambert, associate professor of the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. “The results suggest that employers can improve work schedules in hourly jobs and also meet their business goals.”

The researchers define a “stable” schedule in terms of both the consistency and predictability in the number and timing of hours employees work each week.

Researchers conducted the study in 28 stores in the San Francisco and Chicago areas, running from November 2015 to August 2016.

In the experimental group, which comprised a randomized group of 19 of the 28 assigned stores, managers were told to give more consistent daily and weekly schedules to workers and often allowed to marginally increase workers’ total number of payroll hours.

High-fat diets may be worse for shift workers

“To date, what we find is that the move to more stable schedules improved retention among workers with more seniority who have greater knowledge of products and processes,” Lambert says. “This helps explain the productivity boost.”

In the report, the group recommends employers “take the leap to more stable scheduling” because of the business benefits, as well as the fact that several cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City, have passed scheduling legislation, with comparable legislation pending in at least 13 additional municipalities.

“Continued pressure from legislatures and lawsuits mean that the time is right for employers to take the initiative to improve schedule stability in ways that work for them,” the report concludes.

“The Gap is very much committed to making a profit and views its employees as core to that,” Lambert says. “They know that unstable work schedules make it difficult for employees to do their job well and to plan their life outside of work.”

Changing schedules take a toll on medical interns

Additional authors of the study are from the University of California, Hastings College of Law, and the University of North Carolina.

Funding for the research came from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Institute of International Education in collaboration with the Ford Foundation, Center for Popular Democracy, the Suzanne M. Nora Johnson and David G. Johnson Foundation, and the Gap.

Source: University of Chicago

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Listen: How ‘smart city’ sensors keep an eye on Chicago

Imagine a health monitor for the city, but rather than measuring heart rate or daily steps, this device measures everything from air quality to vehicle traffic.

The idea may sound like science fiction, but it’s becoming a reality for cities like Chicago through the Array of Things project, a collaborative effort among scientists, universities, local government, and community members to collect real-time data on the city.

Charlie Catlett, director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data at the University of Chicago and Argonne, leads the project based out of Argonne National Laboratory. Catlett is aiming to install 500 sensor nodes around Chicago and eventually setup a network around the world “to improve living and working in the city.”

“We talked to people in the city of Chicago to understand what their challenges are,” Catlett says. “And we found from talking with them and from our own work there’s a lot of data that’s missing, that should be able to be measured, and that requires data analytics, it requires data integration infrastructure, and it requires a measurement strategy.”

On this episode of the podcast Knowledge Applied, Carlett talks about sensor design, explains their sophisticated measuring capabilities, and discusses the future of “smart cities.”

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher.

Source: University of Chicago

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Listen: Program fights food insecurity for families of sick kids

While taking care of a sick child in the hospital can be a nightmare for any parent or caregiver, many families must also contend with being hungry while caring for their child.

Stacy Lindau leads a program to help combat hunger called Feed1st. With six food pantries located throughout the University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital, it offers a solution in the fight against “food insecurity.”

“Food insecurity is a technical term, and it means that an individual over a period of time can’t reasonably rely on access to basic nutritional sources or meet their nutritional needs in socially acceptable ways,” says Lindau, a physician and professor at the Pritzker School of Medicine in the obstetrics/gynecology and medicine-geriatrics departments.

Although one in five US households with children are food insecure, Lindau had no idea how rampant the problem was in hospitals until she was approached by a chaplain who witnessed families going hungry at the bedside of their sick child.

On this episode of the podcast Knowledge Applied, Lindau shares how she decided to address what she called a “real humanitarian need,” the benefits of food pantries, both for families as well as hospital staff, and how the program is providing critical data for future research.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher.

Source: University of Chicago

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