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Miscanthus x giganteus: way of the future?

It looks as though John Caveny has imported a jungle to his 35-acre farm in Monticello, IL.

John Caveny stands beneath this year’s crop of Miscanthus grass on his farm in Monticello. A sustainable farmer, Caveny hopes that one day the sterile, noninvasive hybrid grass can be widely grown for biofuel.

But what appears to be the beginning of some vast tropical hinterland is in fact Caveny’s crop of Miscanthus x giganteus, a tall perennial from Southeast Asia.  Caveny, who describes himself as a “practical conservationist,” grows the grass for its impressive biomass, which can be converted to fuel, and its ecological benefits.  He has recently completed 10 years of on-farm trials in conjunction with the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana.

“If users are going to switch from fossil fuels they have to have reasonably good assurance that there will be adequate supplies of fuel,” he said, adding that this was one of the trial’s main questions.  And the answer?  “Yes, we can grow enough material.”

The grass, which reaches its full height of about 12 feet in late July, is a naturally occurring sterile cross between the Miscanthus sinensis and Miscanthus sacchariflorus.  Because it is sterile, it must rely on underground rhizomes to propagate.  These rhizomes are easily manipulated for transplant and grow so slowly they are incapable of becoming invasive, Caveny said.

The grass isn’t a food crop either, said Peter Schubert, senior director for space, energy and education research at Packer Engineering.  This is a good thing: whereas corn and soy, other biofuel candidates, are also used for consumption, Miscanthus cannot be eaten.

“The tradeoff between food and fuel is not sustainable,” Schubert said.  In other words, corn-for-fuel and corn-for-food would have to fight for the same fields.  The grass, however, grows happily on acres that are otherwise too polluted or arid to be used for food.

Miscanthus can be grown on marginal almost non-arable land, and convert those acres to productive energy source,” Schubert said.

The grasses require very little input.  They get their water from rain and the water table and, save a one-time fertilization during their first year, all their nutrients from the soil.  After its third year, the grass has reached a ceiling yield, and will continue to produce roughly the same amount of biomass every year for the next three decades.

Other benefits include soil retention, carbon sequestration and wildlife habitats, according to the trail.  But despite its many environmental boons, Miscanthus is not eligible for grown on land trusts, parcels set aside for conservation, Caveny said.

This makes it harder to find the space that would make growing the grass efficient.

Besides, not everyone is convinced this is such a good idea.

“I don’t think it’s the solution,” said Kim Grey, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University.  Grey doubts that biofuels could ever fully replace the gasoline, kerosene and diesel used for automobiles, trains and airplanes.

“If you look ten years down the road, is that really where our fleet is going?  Maybe this provides us with a transition, but it isn’t long-term.”

But maybe transitional technology isn’t such a bad thing, said Schubert.

“There are very few technologies that could solve the entire industry problem,” he said.  “Turning energy crops into fuel will always be an important part of the future energy portfolio of mankind.”

Caveny agrees that until we move away from liquid fuels altogether, alternative sources will be important, especially cheap ones that produce a high yield and environmental benefits.

“Our culture works based on high-yielding crops no matter what you grow,” Caveny said.  But a history of subsidizing certain crops and not others has created a false profitability picture.  Along with the rules governing use of land conservancies, that’s one of the things he will work to change in the future.

“Take the subsidies out and let every crop grow on its merits, and then you’re going to see the energy crops become extremely profitable,” he said.

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Good, Better, and Breast: Cool Breast Cancer Arts Initiatives

By: Chris Miller
Major: Psychology,  Minor: Global Health
WCAS, 2012

Whenever I do online research for a project or report, I get distracted – easily.  It’s not uncommon for me to find myself having wasted huge chunks of time on Google Trends.  Trends, one of about a thousand (last time I checked) features/services offered by Google, gives users info about the search volume of a given topic over time.  For instance, if you look up “Northwestern University” on Trends, you’ll see a nifty graph with a tough-to-explain-to-your-grandma peak in March of 2011.  Using Trends is an excellent way to waste time while doing web research.  What a great feeling, then, to use Trends for something productive.

If you type “breast cancer” into Google Trends, you’ll notice something right off the bat.  Every October, without fail, there is a spike in Google searches for the topic.  October is breast cancer awareness month, which, (very) apparently, lives up to its name.  Between the pink ribbons, the awareness walks and runs, and the collaboration with big-name partners, Breast Cancer Awareness Month catches our attention; awareness campaigns succeed in increasing public knowledge about health concerns.  In the case of breast cancer, the campaigns have been known to raise knowledge about treatment and prevention and to raise screening rates.  They involve the collaboration between lots of different communities (just ask the football player in pink).  Shouldn’t the arts community get in on the action?

And of course they do.  The California-based Keep A Breast Foundation is doing an awesome job using art to raise health awareness.  One of their coolest initiatives combines painting and three dimensional art.  Women who are newly diagnosed with breast cancer are given the opportunity to have plaster casts made of their breasts, before undergoing any surgeries.  The casts are then painted by pro artists in cool, creative ways.  The women use the casts to document their cancer journeys.  In addition, casts are displayed at Keep A Breast events to raise breast cancer awareness.  Keep A Breast also recently partnered with street artist Shepard Fairey (I’m guessing maybe you’ve seen this) to bring us the Non-Toxic Revolution, a campaign that uses street-art style work to educate about dangerous toxins associated with breast cancer.  Keep A Breast isn’t the only organization to use artwork in raising awareness.  There was also the Voices and Visions art exhibit in Lake Oswego, Oregon.  The exhibit, at the Lakewood Center for the Arts in Lake Oswego, featured work by artists whose lives had been impacted by breast cancer (survivors, previvors, family members, and friends).

The involvement of the arts community in raising breast cancer awareness extends beyond painting and 3-D art.  One of the most unique breast cancer initiatives is the annual Breast Fest Film Festival in Toronto.  The fest screens a number of films related to breast cancer.  Last year’s film topics ranged from women with breast cancer in the UAE to a Singapore breast cancer survivors’ boat racing team.  The fest also includes a speaker series, a comedy show, and (my favorite part) a film contest where the public can submit short films about breast cancer.  Several films are chosen by a panel and screened at the fest.  The audience votes on the best film.  This is such a cool way for all sorts of people to get involved in public health awareness efforts.  Breast cancer can also be addressed through theater.  Actress ‘Rie Shontel performs in Mama Juggs, a one woman show tackling breast health.  Shontel plays four different characters, among them her mother who died of cancer.  Mama Juggs will be showing at the Chicago Fringe Festival in Pilsen this September.

You might be wondering where I’m going with all this.  Recently, I started a project to look at the ways in which the arts community can be involved in public health.  I’m focusing on arts campaigns/initiatives directed at fighting five winnable health battles listed as priorities for the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH): tobacco, obesity, teenage/unintended pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and (you’ll never guess…) breast cancer disparities.  In the US, poor people suffer from higher breast cancer mortality rates; Chicago is no different.  The breast cancer mortality rate is also higher among black and Hispanic women.  And there is no reason why arts campaigns can’t address these disparities.  I’ve been meeting with the Commissioner of the CDPH (also a professor at Northwestern) and showing him what I come up with.  Potentially (hopefully!), initiatives similar to the ones I’ve talked about will spring up around Chicago.  Chicago has one of the biggest, best, and, yes, artsiest arts communities of any city around.  Why shouldn’t the windy city’s arts community be part of a unique, refreshing approach to fighting public health battles?

Also, these:

http://www.singtolive.org/

http://somd.com/news/headlines/2010/11630.shtml

http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/graphic-iv-art-bra-fashion-show-art-auction/

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Bringing safe water to the desert: A Q&A with Susan Vescovi

Women carrying water on their heads through the arid desert landscape. Photo courtesy of JBF (www.jalbhagirathi.org).

At the beginning of July, Roshni Barot , Susan Vescovi and Tracy Yang arrived in India’s Thar Desert to work with the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation (JBF). Master’s students in the Global and Ecological Health Program, the three hope to help assess water quality in the 140 villages served by the foundation. As part of Northwestern’s biomedical engineering program, the exchange fosters problem-solving and collaboration, and gives students hands-on field time to hone their analytical and engineering skills.  Though students cycle through one term at a time, the partnership between JBF and Northwestern will hopefully remain for years to come, and as the first students welcomed by the foundation, Barot, Vescovi and Yang fill an especially important role.

Though busy, Vescovi took time to answer questions for the Global Health Portal on behalf of herself and her fellow students.

 

How would you describe your surroundings and your new colleagues?

We are currently staying at the Water Habitat Retreat at the JBF, where we are working on our project. It is about 20 minutes away from the city of Jodhpur, so we haven’t had a lot of time to be in the city around local people. Our new colleagues are very nice and have been trying to set us up with all the information we need.

This phase of the project is largely exploratory – what does that mean?

We came into this project with a little bit of an understanding about the scientific work JBF is trying to establish here. We had an initial idea about the work we wanted to do, which was to draw a clearer connection between water quality and health. We did not have much of their scientific data before we came to Jodhpur, but after spending two weeks here we better understand the organization and the how they perform their water quality testing.

How has your past prepared you for this?

The three of us all have very diverse backgrounds. I have an undergraduate degree in biology, Tracy has a undergraduate degree in architecture, and Roshni has an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering. It seems like we have all been able to deliver something different to the project, like drawing skills, past lab experiences, language skills, and general differences in looking at a problem. It’s really funny to see how all of our past experiences sort of click as we tackle this project!

What do you hope to get out of this experience?

I think we are all hoping to contribute to the efforts of JBF. They have done a lot of work with bringing people in the region water and now they want to make sure that the water is safe. Hopefully we can them help focus on different scientific factors that can monitor water and one day establish a strong collection system that can demonstrate the importance of clean water to the people they work with. We are also excited to be getting real hands on experience working with an NGO and seeing how they use scientific fieldwork to promote their efforts.

What do you imagine your contributions to this effort will be?

We are still working hard to find that out. The situation is not as clear-cut as we had originally imagined. We are still making a lot of observations that are important for future students who may continue our project in the future. Our contributions will most likely be laying groundwork for what is possible in the future and helping JBF to look at different types of testing that can form Northwestern student projects in the future.

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Researching the growing prevalence of diabetes and hypertension in rural Bolivia

Hola desde Bolivia!

We are Annsa, Danielle, and Gabby, and the three of us are recent Northwestern graduates, moving (perhaps a little too) quickly into the start of our M1 year at Feinberg. We are currently wrapping up our summer abroad in rural Bolivia, where we have been working with Centro Medico Humberto Parra (CMHP), a free primary-care clinic situated in the country’s eastern rainforest. CMHP is located in the small village of Palacios, about a 2 hour’s drive outside of the city of Santa Cruz.

To address the growing prevalence of diabetes and hypertension in the region, CMHP has recently established its own diabetes prevention and management program, which utilizes community health leaders to facilitate diabetes and hypertension support groups in their respective villages. However, the clinic faces a severe lack of data regarding the burden of diabetes in each individual community that it serves. After contacting health professionals at CMHP, the three of us identified a need for research on the prevalence of diabetes, hypertension, and other relevant risk factors in the clinic’s surrounding villages.

For this reason, the three of us have spent these past two months in Palacios, screening for diabetes and hypertension in four communities surrounding the clinic: La Arboleda, Buena Vista, Yapacani, and Warnes. With this research, we hope to provide CMHP with a broader, more comprehensive body of knowledge relating to the health demographics of its surrounding villages.

Our method consisted of conducting a brief interview with participants about their medical history, diet, general health and exercise habits, in addition to measuring height, weight, blood pressure and blood glucose levels. Because we had to measure participants’ fasting blood glucose levels (before they had consumed any food), most of our work was done in the early morning. We would wake up between 5:30 am and 6 am, always before sunrise, gather our materials and supplies, and head out in the clinic’s SUV. We spent about six mornings in each community, interviewing participants and collecting data.

We would arrive at our designated location within each community, which ranged from someone’s house to the sidewalk in the main market to the local health post. Our location changed every few days to increase exposure and reach a different group of participants. Sometimes, we would arrive at our spot and there would already be people waiting in line and other times, people would trickle in after reading our sign or seeing the crowd.  It was really astounding how people would wait in line for over an hour just to have their blood pressure and glucose levels measured!

We learned to work efficiently, with what resources and space we had. One table, a few chairs, one balance, a stadiometer to measure height, three sphygmomanometers, three glucometers, and a few boxes of lancets and test trips. Each of us would take one participant, explain the purpose of our study and start with the interview, ask our questions, measure weight, height, blood pressure and blood glucose levels.

Although all three of us speak Spanish, at times, it was still difficult to communicate with participants either because they did not exactly understand our questions (specifically related to the concept of chronic disease and exercise) or would use Bolivian slang and special words that needed further explanation, especially when it came to talking about diet and work. For example, a lot of our participants were amas de casas, or housewives, making it difficult for both them and us to judge how truly active their lifestyles were. After all, we’ll agree that running after small children and doing laundry by hand every day can be tiresome, but is it the same thing as playing fútbol or going for a run? That’s something for us to work out as we start analyzing our data. As a whole, however, it was great to talk to these people about their daily lives and habits, and we definitely became very familiar with the Bolivian lifestyle.

We talked to over 450 people and made lots of new friends, to the point where we would recognize people who had participated in our study. In La Arboleda, one of the women made us breakfast after we finished with our study (coffee, cuñapes, and quinoa cake). In Buena Vista, participants would return on the following days just to chat with us and see how we were doing. The local community health leaders in Warnes would treat us to salteñas, a typical Bolivian breakfast pastry. Meanwhile in Yapacani, the health leader’s adorable 2-year-old daughter, Sari, would come play with us when we were done working. We were even interviewed in two different communities by reporters and showcased on the nightly news, speaking our finest Spanish of course! Every place we went, we were welcomed by the community and graced with willing and friendly participants.

One of the early difficulties we faced while conducting our study was trying to explain the concept of chronic disease with our participants. For the most part, Bolivian understanding of health tends to be more immediate in nature, influenced by the belief that chronic diseases like diabetes can be cured with a single doctor’s visit. Even those participants who had been previously diagnosed with diabetes had trouble grasping the importance of consistently taking their medication as prescribed.

We encountered many patients who told us that they had diabetes and/or only took their medication when they “felt bad.” Many did not realize that diabetes is chronic, meaning it occurs from one year to the next and necessitated constant monitoring. We had to explain that it was not a disease that could be controlled sporadically but required taking medication daily to maintain a normal blood glucose level. If anything at all, our study served as an educational campaign in these four communities, as we were able to teach hundreds of people not only important steps to diabetes prevention and management, but the basic tenets of living a healthy and active lifestyle.

As we wrap up our time here in Bolivia, we can say with absolute conviction that this has been an incredible verano – an unparalleled learning experience that we will surely continue to draw from for the rest of our lives.

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21st Century Life in El Péten, Guatemala

by Laura Ruch, WCAS 2012, biology and science in human culture major, global health minor

Dr. Paul Farmer once said, at a keynote address for the 2010 Northwestern GlobeMed Summit, “There are no first, second, third worlds.  There is one world.”  That line has stuck with me since I first heard it, and I think it offers a wonderful model for thinking about issues related to poverty, access to resources and health inequality.   We are all living in the 21st century, a time of seemingly endless technological capacities, and as members of one world, it strikes me as unacceptable that some communities continue to remain cut off from the resources and inventions that the “developed” world has at its fingertips.

I recently had the chance to spend a week in El Petén, Guatemala, working  with an NGO called SewHope, based out of Toledo, Ohio (my hometown).   I’ve traveled to Guatemala five times before, but this trip rattled me even more so than the others, perhaps because I am older, but also, I think,  because the organization has developed strong relationships with the  people in Pueblo Nuevo.  The small village has only about 60 families, and  working among them, it felt like we were their extended family, their  friends, rather than outsiders with our own agenda.  SewHope is a  multifaceted organization comprised of physicians, teachers, farmers, and  students, both from the US and Guatemala.  While the American doctors  have expertise in diagnosing and treating illnesses, the organization would be nothing without the inside knowledge and connections of the Guatemalans who work there.  When we must board a flight back to the US, patients can return to the clinic for follow up visits and medication refills, the education programs continue to run, and the gardens and tilapia farms we helped to create aid in improving nutrition and bringing in extra cash for the community.  It seems intuitive that an organization working in community development and health care simply cannot be effective if it runs stop and go programs, dependent upon the travel schedules of foreigners.

Many incredible moments came out of my week in Pueblo Nuevo, but I’ll limit myself to sharing three of the most poignant stories.  Firstly, while taking a medical history of a young woman, I commented on her baby’s lovely knitted red hat, and asked her why she used it in the middle of the summer.  As it turned out, the hat was not for sun protection so much as  for protection from “El Ojo”, or the Evil Eye.  The woman explained to me that the year before one of her other children had begun vomiting a green fluid after a man she had an argument with gave it “the look.”  The baby died suddenly.  After hearing this, I began to notice that almost all the babies had something red on them – a shirt, a blanket, a simple bracelet.  Beliefs surrounding Evil eye date back to Spanish folk religion, and children, especially infants, are believed to be most susceptible.  In a setting where many infants die of malaria, diarrhea, malnutrition, and other preventable illnesses, it makes sense that such beliefs are ubiquitous.  Rationalizing “stupid deaths” (another Paul Farmer phrase) by ascribing them to uncontrollable forces of evil is a much easier pill to swallow then recognizing that one’s child has been the victim of an unfair world, where some are simply cut off from basic healthcare, sanitation, and clean water.   Many women also continue to believe that their health care catastrophes are the results of the “susto”.  Susto is what happens when you experience a terrible “fright.” One woman described seeing a large snake in her home that terrified her while she was pregnant, and her baby immediately died.  Another woman witnessed a murder and afterwards began experiencing chronic back pain. Of course, these are not conscious things – the mothers have not had the privilege of learning about the mechanisms of disease and malnutrition, and they are not trying to replace science with non science-based cultural beliefs.  However, one can see how believing in the Evil Eye or “susto” might serve as a sort of coping mechanism for painful losses.

Also on the trip, I saw first hand the importance of a community feeling  empowered and being able to collaborate to work toward big goals.  The  day after I arrived in Guatemala, we drove into the village in a van and found all of the kids and some of the community leaders gathered outside  the school and looking forlorn.  As it turned out, the school’s principal, Concepcion, had locked the gates to keep the students and teachers out. From what I understood, he felt angry at the way parents had been pushing him to create new education programs, and he thought that the  new spirit of empowering women and children would undermine his  authority.  He is frequently absent (the school was only open 1 day the  week before for no apparent reason).  Concepcion has been pulling these  sorts of stunts for years, but the community had decided once and for all they had had enough, and one of the leaders went off in search of something to break the lock with.  When he came back with a huge set of bolt-cutters, he spoke for a few minutes on camera about the unfairness of the situation, and then forcefully broke the lock while everyone clapped and cheered.  On July 1, a group of the villagers went to the Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Education, and the newspaper (Prensa Libre) with the information, with the hopes of removing Concepcion from his position.  They were able to inform the authorities who have promised to replace Concepcion.  It was really cool to see the people of Pueblo Nuevo standing up for themselves and taking the initiative to demand a higher standard of education for their children.

Finally, a very surprising event that we were privileged to take part in was the excavation of the body of the husband of one of the women in the village.  The man and his friend were the victims of random killings during Guatemala’s 36 year civil war (1960-1996), arguably the most brutal civil war in the history of Latin America.  More than 200,000 people were killed, about 83% of Mayan descent, and the U.N. Commission for Historical Clarification has issued a report showing that state forces and military groups inflicted the vast majority of human rights violations.  Now the government has started a program to offer some solace to families of those who have suffered the loss of loved ones. A team of two archaeologists, two forensic scientists, a psychologist, numerous policemen and others led the exhumation of the husband and his friend. The story was featured on the Guatemalan news for the Petén region.  The community eagerly included us in the very special event and even invited us into the area sectioned off for family members.  Our friend Orfe initiated the process, and she has also established a cemetery in Pueblo Nuevo.  For a community with very strong religious beliefs, having a proper place to bury and visit those who have passed away is very important.

It took me a full day of traveling to make it back to Chicago, and, as  always, it was a somewhat surreal experience to step into an American  airport and have limitless restaurants, amenities, and services offered to me. The week in Guatemala truly flew by, and I’m eagerly looking forward  to my next trip there. In the meantime, there are lots of things to mull  over.  I can only imagine what sort of changes will take place in Pueblo Nuevo in the next couple of years and beyond the people are given the chance to make their lives better.

 

 

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