Bill Nye is off this week and filling in is the lesser known Science Guy, Bwog’s very own Zach Kagan who takes a look at some of Columbia’s great intellectuals and their research below:  

Professor Terry A. Plank and Professor Maria Chudnovsky

Columbia Professors are no slouches in the brain department. Still, despite their surplus IQ points, few would likely describe themselves as geniuses. Maybe the Core’s infatuation with Socrates has rubbed off on them, or maybe its just plain bad taste. Who knows?  Regardless, for two professors, it’s about to get a lot harder to prevent ego-tripping. That’s because Prof. Terry A. Plank and Prof. Maria Chudnovsky have both been awarded MacArthur “Genius” Grants!

Well, they’re only informally called the “genius grants”. Each of this years’s 23 MacArthur Fellows were anonymously chosen by their peers and given $500,000 to do as they please with, so long as it furthers the scope and goals of their research. Prof. Plank was selected for her work at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory measuring the CO2 concentration of Pacific Ocean volcanoes, while Prof. Chudnovsky was selected for her research “on the structure of abstract graphs with a focus on graph theory and combinatorial optimization,” which are important mathematical topics often applied by engineers.

But not all of us can be MacArthur fellows. There’s a lot of research being done and a limited number of $500,000 dollar checks to give away each year. So, why should MacArthur fellows have all the fun when there are so many researchers deserving of a good ego stroking? Just take Maria Karayiorgou, MD, for example. She’s professor of psychiatry at the Medical Center and chief of the New York State Psychiatric Institute’s Psychiatric and Medical Genetics devision. And, if that weren’t enough, she’s just published a landmark new study on Schizophrenia. Since the disease tends to run in families, researchers studying the cause of the disease often look for genetic components that can pass from generation to generation. However, Dr. Karayiorgou and her colleagues found evidence of de novo mutations (spontaneous mutations that are not present in the parent) in their schizophrenia patients. By selectively sequencing the protein coding genes of patients and their parents, the team was able to find which de novo mutations contribute to schizophrenia. The study’s scope is best summarized by its co-director, Dr. Joseph Gogos, “Although the genetics of schizophrenia are extremely complex, a coherent picture of the disease is beginning to emerge.”

Or what about the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory’s very own William D’Andrea? He’s discovered that current arctic temperatures are higher than they’ve ever been in the past 18,000 years. Warmer even than the so called “Medieval Warm Period” (950-1250), an interval of history warmed by increased solar radiation and volcanic activity, which interestingly enough facilitated the creation of Viking settlements in Greenland. Climate Change skeptics often point at the Medieval Warm Period as an example of a natural change in planet-wide temperatures. But D’Andrea and his colleagues’s data has shown that this period wasn’t so hot after all, at least when compared to current temperatures. Instead of measuring ice cores, the team collected sediment samples throughout an arctic lake system located in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. There the algae in the water responds to the lake’s temperature, producing more saturated fats in warmer years while making more unsaturated fat in cooler years. These ancient algae samples can be dated by comparing tiny grains of glass, which can be traced back to one of many Icelandic volcanic eruptions. That process may sound difficult, but it’s no where near as hard as pronouncing the name of these volcanoes (SkaftáreldarGrímsvötnEyjafjallajökull, plaguing Europe with volcanic particles and tied tongues since 1783)

And who could forget to mention Asa Abeliovich, MD, PhD, from the CUMC? His most recent publication details the mechanism that causes sporadic (again meaning non-familial) Parkinson’s disease. It’s long been known that the over-expression of the alfa-synuclein producing gene is a significant factor in the brains of patients afflicted with the familial (genetic) form of Parkinson’s disease. An excess of alfa-synuclein can result in neural damage (especially to dopamine neurons) which causes Parkinson’s. So Dr. Abeliovich and her team took to searching for alfa-synuclein and its effects in sporadic cases of Parkinson’s, using a wide variety of genetic sequencing techniques. They found that there are many forms of the alfa-synuclein protein causing problems in the brain’s of those suffering from Parkinson’s, but the most troublesome variations are the elongated alpha-synuclein transcript forms. The study also found that exposure to certain toxins can result in increased production of these longer transcript variants. That’s a scary thought, but it comes with a ray of hope since drugs that prevent the accumulation of alfa-synuclein could be used as treatment. Also, blood tests can measure heightened levels of elongated alfa-synuclein, providing a possible new test for the disease and its severity. Now that’s the kind of results you can be proud of.

MacArthur Geniuses via