A love story closes LSSP 2017

Jim Obergefell’s love endured through his partner’s death and all the way to the Supreme Court.
Jim ObergefellJim Obergefell speaks about winning the landmark Supreme Court case that granted equal marraige rights to same-sex couples. Obergefell received a standing ovation after his lecture.
Photo by Eleanor Hasenbeck | Bond Life Sciences

By Eleanor C. Hasenbeck | Bond Life Sciences

Jim Obergefell had a destination wedding, but not by choice. On a chartered medical jet on a tarmac in Baltimore, Obergefell married John Arthur, his partner of 20 years, in a union that would result in a landmark Supreme Court decision.

Obergefell was the named plaintiff in the landmark decision that granted same-sex couples the right to marry, Obergefell v. Hodges. He closed the Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, Friday, October 13, with a lecture and book signing.

Obergefell and his partner John met and began their life together in Cincinnati, Ohio, around the time the city passed an ordinance prohibiting any city laws that would protect LGBTQ people. In 2004, Ohio passed a state Defense of Marriage Act that explicitly prohibited marriage between same-sex couples in Ohio. In 2013, the Supreme Court handed down the Windsor decision, which struck down a key portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and gave same-sex marriages federal recognition.

When Obergefell learned this news, he leaned over, hugged and kissed his partner, and said “let’s get married.”

This was more complicated than your run-of-the-mill, spontaneous wedding. Due to marriage prohibitions in Ohio, the couple had to get a dying man to a state that would marry same-sex couples. Jim’s partner, John Arthur, suffered from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a degenerative disease of the nervous system. Nerves that control voluntary movements like breathing, walking and chewing deteriorate and die. A dead nerve cell cannot send pulses to the muscles, so a person with ALS will gradually lose all ability to move, talk and breathe. Arthur was entering the later stages of the disease, and he was confined to a wheelchair with little ability to move.

They settled on Maryland, because it didn’t require both spouses be present to obtain a marriage license. Obergefell got the license, and the couple’ family and friends helped them charter a medical jet to fly to their wedding. Because of Arthur’s illness, they said their vows in the tiny plane’s cabin on the tarmac, with the ceremony officiated by Arthur’s aunt.

That wasn’t the end of their love story. The following week, a human rights lawyer showed them a blank death certificate and told them when Arthur died, the state of Ohio wouldn’t recognize their marriage. Arthur would be listed as single, and in the eyes of their state government, Obergefell wouldn’t be his widow.

“I loved John,” Obergefell said. “I loved my husband, and I was willing to fight for that, and I was not willing to let my state, Ohio, tell me that I was not his widower. That wasn’t something that I was going to give up.”

Eight days after their wedding, Obergefell filed suit against the state of Ohio and the city of Cincinnati. Three months after the cases first hearing, Arthur died. Obergefell ordered 20 copies of his death certificate, knowing the state of Ohio wouldn’t get it right. The Sixth Circuit Court ruled against the couple, opening the case up for Supreme Court review.

It took two years from their wedding, but the Supreme Court ruled in their favor and granted equal marriage rights to same-sex couples on July 26, 2015. Obergefell left the courtroom to a crowd of cheers, cries, high-fives and slaps on the back. He received a phone call from President Barack Obama. He only remembered what he said after watching himself speak to the President on CNN News.

Today, he calls himself an “accidental activist.” He tells his story at speaking events across the country. He said he feels proud each time an audience member tells him he’s given them the bravery to come out to their friends and family. 20th Century Fox bought the movie rights to his book, Love Wins, and he’s starting a business selling LGBTQ-themed wines, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting organizations advancing LGBTQ equality.

As he spoke, it marked four years since his husband’s passing. Now ordained himself, he married two of his friends, a same-sex couple, earlier this week. For him, the Supreme Court’s decision marks his partner’s greatest legacy.

“You know, I’d give it all back for John to be here,” Obergefell said. “I couldn’t prevent John from dying of ALS, but I’m really happy I could help create a legacy of love for millions of people in his memory.”

Obergefell spoke as part of the The 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, Oct. 6-13, 2017. It featured six experts that research various aspects of love, relationships and connection. Obergefell’s book, Love Wins, is available now.

McKibben urges climate action in campus lecture

Bill McKibben explained the impact of increasing carbon emissions on the global climate and explored solutions to slowing the trend

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben responds to an audience member’s question at his lecture on Oct. 4 in Jesse Hall. The screen behind him shows demonstrators blocking an oil rig from leaving harbor. McKibben called them “kayak-tivists.” Photo by Eleanor Hasenbeck | Bond Life Sciences

Bill McKibben responds to an audience member’s question at his lecture on Oct. 4 in Jesse Hall. The screen behind him shows demonstrators blocking an oil rig from leaving harbor. McKibben called them “kayak-tivists.” Photo by Eleanor Hasenbeck | Bond Life Sciences

Eleanor Hasenbeck | Bond Life Sciences Center

Climate writer and activist Bill McKibben spoke to a packed house at the Missouri Theater Wednesday, October 4. With more than 300 people in attendance, McKibben discussed the changing climate, its impacts and his activism. The lecture was part of the Lloyd B. Thomas Lecture & Performance Series.

“It’s happened a hell of a lot faster and pinched a hell of a lot harder than we thought it would,” said McKibben of climate change.

McKibben said the signs of a warming planet first became apparent in the 1970s. Today, the oceans have become 30% more acidic as the world’s salt water takes in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Hurricanes are breaking records in the amount of rainfall and monetary damage they bring, McKibben said.

The solution lies in consuming less and using alternative energy, he continued. Last year, half of Denmark’s energy was generated by wind. Solar panels are so affordable now that homes in east Africa once lit by kerosene lanterns are powered by solar panels on the roofs of small homes.

“If we actually wanted to, we could move with real speed to make this transition,” McKibben said.

Why aren’t we then? McKibben blames the fossil fuel industry. Internal communications from Exxon Mobil show the corporation took steps to protect its drilling rigs from rising sea levels and increasing severe weather at the same time it was working to block regulations that would decrease carbon emissions.

“It took me far too long to figure out that we were not in argument at all,” McKibben said, referring to the so-called debate as to whether a warming climate is caused by human impact. “We were in a fight, and a fight is always about money and power. The fossil fuel industry was the richest and the most powerful industry on the planet, and the fact that it had lost the argument made very little difference to it. It was winning the fight day after day after day.”

But for all the doom and gloom surrounding climate change, McKibben still has hope that we can slow the process. He founded 350, an organization working to use grass roots movements to oppose fossil fuels. According to 350.org, 350 is named after an acceptable concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, 350 parts per million.  Demonstrations through the organization have taken place across the world, from American cities to places most susceptible to rising sea levels, like the Maldives and Haiti.

At Bond LSC, some are taking their own steps to slow down the rate of the world’s warming. Cheryl Rosenfeld studies Bisphenol A, a chemical component of many plastics. She recently installed solar panels on her home, and she earns credits for the energy they generate. She uses reusable bags at the grocery store to reduce the waste generated from plastic and the fossil fuels consumed to produce them.

“Each of us could be making the decisions in our own lives that can make a change,” Rosenfeld said. “If we all come together like that, we can make an impact.”

There are several ways to reduce your own carbon footprint:

  • Use renewable energy to power your home. You can find utilities companies that generate at least half their power through renewable energy
  • Weatherize your home to make your heating and cooling systems more efficient.
  • Invest in energy-efficient appliances. Use a power strip or unplug your devices when they are fully charged or not in use.
  • Reduce food and water waste. About 10 percent of American energy goes to food production, and about 40 percent of our food is wasted. You can save money and energy by eating what you buy.
  • Install solar panels on your home. Right now, you can earn a 30 percent federal solar tax credit. The city of Columbia also offers rebates to encourage utilities customers to use solar energy and invest in more energy efficient utility systems. The city also maintains a list of solar providers that meet its requirements for rebates.

The most important thing, said McKibben, is inspiring policy changes like carbon taxes or renewable energy programs.

“We’re so far deep into this problem that we can’t solve it one person at a time. What we need is a change in policy, said McKibben. “The best individual action is not to be an individual. It’s to come together in movements big enough – that doesn’t take an enormous movement. It takes between four or five percent of people coming together in a movement to force change in policy that might give us some chance.”

 

Bill McKibben is author of sixteen books about environmental issues and founder of 350. He frequently contributes articles and editorials to organizations such as the New York Times, the Guardian and Mother Jones. You can learn more about his writing and activism at his website.

Bond Life Sciences Center sponsored the 2016 LSSP Symposium, Confronting Climate Change, which brought experts in the field to MU to speak about its pressing issues.

 

Katy Guthrie #IAmScience

Katy Guthrie

Katy Guthrie, a Ph.D. candidate, works in Dr. Paula McSteen’s lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond LSC

“#IAmScience because I want to take the knowledge I gain and teach it to other young scientists so they share in this excitement, too.”

Katy Guthrie grew up as one of five girls. All five sisters took very different paths —one ended up in hospital management, another in marketing and advertising, one became an engineer and the other works in logistics for a start up.

But Guthrie took a different route.

Her love of science started long before she enrolled in classes at Northwest Missouri State University, but there she discovered her true love of plants. Guthrie took a required botany class, and less than a week into the course she was hooked.

“All biology students had to take zoology and botany,” said Guthrie. “I had an awesome botany professor second semester of my freshman year — her enthusiasm for the subject was captivating — and she and I developed a great relationship. It was in that class I discovered that plants are what I want to study for the rest of my life.”

As part of Dr. Paula McSteen’s lab, Guthrie studies the reproductive organs of maize and how its genes allow it to produce flower-bearing structures in pairs, while other plants only produce these structures singly.

“If you count the number of rows on a corn cob, it’s always even,” Guthrie said. “That’s because maize produces two flowers at a time instead of one. My research is essentially trying to figure out which genes are responsible for that doubling trait.”

It’s not an easy process, though, so Guthrie nurtures a unique approach to finding the solutions.

“I take ears of corn that make one flower-bearing structure and work backwards to try and find what’s missing,” Guthrie said. “If I can find that, I can assume that’s what’s making the difference.”

Although her work can be painstaking, Guthrie noted that science is all about learning from mistakes.

Ultimately, Guthrie wants to duplicate the gene that causes the doubling trait in other crops, such as rice, wheat and barley. This could have a big impact on cereal crop reproduction.

“We’re hoping to apply what we learn about maize other crops,” Guthrie said.

After finishing her studies at Mizzou, Guthrie plans to return to the classroom as a professor, preferably teaching undergraduates.

“The whole reason I decided to go to graduate school was to be able to teach,” Guthrie said. “I want people who aren’t necessarily interested in science initially to get invested in it. I also want to incorporate research into the classes I’ll teach because not every college is a research campus like Mizzou.”

The state of the American marriage

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Eli Finkel explains not all modern marriages are getting worse. Finkel spoke about his new book, “The All-Or-Nothing Marriage”. | Photo by Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

By: Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

“And they lived happily ever after. Like, what the hell?” Eli Finkel exclaimed. “That’s a foolish way of thinking. Really what you’re doing is stepping on the welcome mat of what’s actually going to be interesting, of what’s actually going to be challenging.”

Finkel set out to write a book about how the quality of American marriages have declined. But while the modern marriage is nowhere near a fairy-tale ending, it’s not as doomed as Finkel predicted.

“The initial version of the theory was the suffocation of marriage, that we’re suffocating this institution,” Finkel explained. “Now it’s a story about divergence.”

In fact, Finkel found the best marriages are getting better.

But he wasn’t completely wrong either; the average marriage is getting worse.

“We in America have changed marriage from something that can grow when neglected to something that requires constant care and affection, but if you get it right is pretty special,” the Northwestern psychology professor said.

This is the idea behind Finkel’s new book, “The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work.”

A better marriage has always been correlated with a higher quality of life. What’s new is the effect of marriage on an individuals life is increasing in importance.

To explain this change, Finkel breaks up the evolution of marriage into three stages.

The first was the pragmatic era during the preindustrial times. Life was fragile and couples married to meet basic needs to survive.

Then around the 1850’s, industrialization allows young people to be economically and geographically free. Finkel said this freedom was used to seek marriages for personal fulfillment and love.

“This marriage has a particular structure that had been the fantasy of people for generations,” Finkel elaborated.

By the 1950’s this idea of the wife as the homemaker and husband as the breadwinner was fully established. For Finkel, this is problematic because it assumes that men and women are fundamentally different and restricts them to two different roles. Data proves both genders can be assertive and nurturing.

People begin to revolt against this idea around the 1960’s. This is the third and current stage of marriage. Finkel calls it the expressive model of marriage. Now, in addition to love and personal fulfillment, people want a spouse who will help them grow.

For Finkel, these stages are mirror Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the base of the pyramid are basic needs then the psychological needs of love and belonging are positioned in the middle. At the top of the pyramid are self-fulfillment needs, which is what he views American couples need in a marriage today.

“In my mind, the story of rising expectations is not one where we are expecting too much,” he said. “There’s something special about looking to your marriage to do things up there. There’s something special about saying ‘what if I had a marriage that was not only loving but really helped turned us into the ideal versions of ourselves.’”

Finkel continued that such lofty expectations from a marriage are hard to achieve. Thus, the all-or-nothing state.

So how can we make our marriage meet these higher demands?

The author laid out three options.

  • Going All In: This option involves going on date nights, but not just going on specific types of date nights. A study revealed while going on comfortable dates and exciting dates increase the quality of the relationships, only exciting dates increase sexual desire.
  • Love Hacking: This technique doesn’t involve making a relationship better, but is about changing how you think about a relationship in a more constructive way. Finkel said this is one that doesn’t take much time and doesn’t need both couples. One way to do this, Finkel explained, is by writing about your fights from a third party perspective. A study that asked participants to do this showed that marriage quality stopped declining and the individual reported feeling less angry.
  • Recalibrating: This technique involves lowering your expectations. Floyd elaborated by speaking explaining that people are relying more on their spouse to satisfy theirto how marriage has taken on more of individuals’ social social,, emotional and psychological needs. Research shows that people who have more diversified social networks are happier than those who don’t.

“It’s an interesting time to be married,” Finkel concluded. “The average marriage is a little bit worse than before but those of us who are able to flourish while asking these ambitious things are able to have a level of marital fulfillment that was out of reach previously.”

The 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, started Friday, Oct. 6 and Saturday, Oct. 7. It features six experts that research various aspects of love, relationships and connection. The event will conclude on Friday, Oct. 13 with its last speaker, Jim Obergefell, who was the plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case on marriage equality.

Examining the African American marriage

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Charlandra Bryant reveals some of her findings on what influences African Americans’ marriage quality. Bryant spoke on the effects of health on African American couples on Saturday, Oct. 7. | Photo by Roger Meissen, Bond LSC

By: Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

“Race matters, even in marriage,” Charlandra Bryant said to open her talk on the marital functions of African American couples.

Bryant asked the crowd that gathered for the Annual Life Sciences & Society Program Symposium on Saturday, October 7, to name successful African American couples.

After naming the Obama’s, many people’s minds come up empty, and Bryant attributes this to the tendency of the media and literature to highlight single African American households.

Few studies explore how African Americans’ marriage quality relates to interactions between the couple.

Bryant wanted to explore factors like entering marriages with kids and poverty that are unique characteristics to African American relationships. Her project dives into the connection between African American marriages and health.

Over the years, she has collected data from hundreds of newlywed African American couples. The couples’ variance in other key demographics like age, education level and income, produced a result that realistically encompassed African American marriages.

Health

Weight was one aspect of Bryant’s research that impacted the health of a relationship.

She found that heavier husbands were more likely to be depressed, but their weight did not affect their wives’ happiness. However, if a wife was heavier, the husband often showed more signs of depression.

While this effect was interesting, Bryant said the most revealing part of this research was that if couples felt very close to their partner the link between depression and weight decreased. This behavioral closeness, in sum, improved their lives.

Stepfathers

The effect of stepfathers on relationships was another theme Bryant explored. Her research explored how stepfathers affected things like commitment, trust, marital happiness and love. Not surprisingly, she found stepfathers who had positive relationships with their stepchildren reported better marriage quality.

Racial Discrimination

Bryant’s work found that wives who experienced racial discrimination also reported less physical affection and hostile husbands. She said this association stumped her for a while.

Now, she theorizes that husbands may be frustrated by their lack of ability to help their wife to deal with the discrimination, so they displace their anger towards their wives, such as perhaps raising their voice asking “Why didn’t you stand up for yourself?” The wife who could be sensitive to the experience could interpret this as a hostile behavior.

The Role of Genes

Little is known about the effect that genes play in social relationships, Bryant explained, but that didn’t stop her from asking questions.

For one study, male participants were asked to spit into a cup. Those samples were then paired with participants’ responses on hostility and warmth within their marriages along with depression and marriage satisfaction.

It found men at high-risk for depression were more responsive to positive and negative effects. In essence, husbands with a higher risk for depression can actually report higher levels of marital satisfaction when they receive high levels of warmth than the husbands who are at low-risk for depression.

While individuals can’t change their genetic makeup, Bryant said knowing if your spouse is susceptible to depression could help in your relationship.

Goals

The goal of Bryant’s ongoing research is to help improve intervention techniques. She said not all interventions work for everyone; sometimes they need to be culture-specific so she hopes her findings can help improve the techniques used for African American couples.

The 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, started Friday, Oct. 6 and Saturday, Oct. 7. It features six experts that research various aspects of love, relationships and connection. The event will conclude on Friday, Oct. 13 with its last speaker, Jim Obergefell, who was the plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case on marriage equality.

The power of a hug

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Kory Floyd speaks about humans’ need for affection. Floyd spoke during the 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium on Saturday, Oct. 7. | Photo by Roger Meissen, Bond LSC

By: Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

Kory Floyd was stressed and having an all-around bad day, but then a coworker offered him a hug.

“That hug didn’t change anything about what had gone in my day but it changed everything about what the way that I felt,” Floyd said. “Suddenly all that stress, suddenly all that disappointment, all that worry, it didn’t go away but it seemed to lift off my shoulders, it wasn’t weighing me down.”

Floyd studies how prosocial communication, like affection, compassion, and trust, affect individuals psychologically.

He spoke specifically on communicating affection during the Life Sciences and Society Symposium on Saturday, Oct. 7.

Affection can be communicated through verbal and non-verbal communication as well as through supportive behavior. This last category is one he discovered through his research. Supportive behavior like keeping someone’s car in good condition or helping someone with a task is sometimes the most common way of expressing affection, especially between men.

The University of Arizona communications professor said he started his research by exploring an aspect of affection that confused him in his life. Growing up in a family of huggers, Floyd said he soon found out that not everyone appreciated the same type or kind of affection.

Expressing affection can be risky. Affection can be misinterpreted or not reciprocated, censured by culture, and even transmit disease.

So why bother?

For Floyd, the answer is simple, “Affection as an emotion and behavior is a fundamental human need.”

To elaborate on his belief, he pointed to how humans are born dependent on others to survive for many years. A child needs someone to feed, protect, provide for it and often make huge financial and personal sacrifices. As Floyd points out, many parents willing to do this due to love.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a stretch to claim that an infant’s ability to get someone to love it is a matter of life or death.” He theorized. “It is a matter of that infant’s survival to get someone to feel a strong enough emotional investment that they are willing to make all the other kinds of investment that are required for that’s infant’s survival.”

As we age, affection transforms into something that feeds our need to belong.

Floyd’s studies have revealed positive associations between affection and happiness and social engagement. Other research revealed that affectionate communication is associated with mental wellness and physical health. When exposed to stressful events, highly affectionate people react with less arousal and recover faster. When compared to a less affectionate person, the more affectionate person has a better immune system, lower blood glucose levels and improved cortisol rhythm.

“It’s really difficult to thrive without some measure of affection,” Floyd concluded.

While not everyone needs the same amount of affection, it is a ubiquitous form of prosocial communication.

“None of what I described here is a prescription for you to go out and start hugging people on the sidewalk, that is not a pathway to health, that is a pathway to incarceration,” Floyd joked as he concluded his talk.

Instead, he highlighted that affection is different than other communication behaviors because it is something we reserve for only the important relationships in our lives.

“We talk to anybody, we gesture to anybody but we don’t kiss just anybody, we don’t hug just anybody,” He said. “This is a special behavior and its something that we preserve and reserve for the very special people in our lives.”

The 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, started Friday, Oct. 6 and Saturday, Oct. 7. It features six experts that research various aspects of love, relationships and connection. The event will conclude on Friday, Oct. 13 with its last speaker, Jim Obergefell, who was the plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case on marriage equality.

Being friendly can payoff

Dr. Brian Hare

Dr. Brian Hare speaks about how friendliness and natural selection are connected at the 13th annual LSSP symposium, The Science of Love. | photo by Roger Meissen

Hare explains survival of the friendliest as component of natural selection

By Allison Scott | Bond LSC

Dogs really are a man’s best friend if you ask Brian Hare.

Our four-legged friends are a direct result of chance coupled with domestication. And over the course of hundreds of years, that domestication has led to deep bonds between humans and dogs.

“You love your dog, physiologically, the same way as your offspring or partner,” Hare said.

Throughout his career, Hare has analyzed various animals from dogs and foxes to chimpanzees and bonobos to determine how much friendliness actually is a factor in their survival.

Recently, Hare has focused on primates. In his studies, he’s observed distinct differences between chimpanzees and bonobos, both of which are closely related species.

“Chimpanzees are like humans,” Hare said. “Bonobos have a different social system.”

Chimpanzees tend to be the more aggressive, male-dominated of the two. On the other hand, bonobos are the exact opposite and thrive on a more equal approach. Bonobos love to share with anyone and everyone, making them friendlier.

Hare has been able to support this difference through a series of experiments. They show that one bonobo will likely help a stranger in a cage get food that is just out of reach. These experiments showed that bonobos are willing to help others in most situations unless there’s a high cost or risk to self.

The evolutionary elements of friendliness and the traits behind kindness Hare identified as a possible reason homo sapiens won out over other human ancestors like Neanderthals. This is due, in part, to what Hare calls the ‘like me’ trait.

“If we as humans can categorize based on cultural or social characteristics that someone is “like us,” we’re more likely to help them out,” Hare said. “This leads to bonds.”

The opposite is also true, though. This means if we identify someon as “not like us,” we’re less likely to help them. That stark difference between humans and both chimpanzees and bonobos makes for a more complicated communication process, and contributes to humans being both the friendliest and cruelest species alive.

At the end of the day, though, Hare strongly believes the science supports friendliness as a component of natural selection.

“You can win big by being friendly in the evolutionary game,” Hare said.

The 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, started Friday, Oct. 6 and Saturday, Oct. 7. It features six experts that research various aspects of love, relationships and connection. The event will conclude on Friday, Oct. 13 with its last speaker, Jim Obergefell, who was the plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case on marriage equality.

Forming a bond

Dr. Larry Young

Dr. Larry Young opens the second day of The Science of Love. | photo by Roger Meissen

Larry Young explores chemicals behind monogamy in prairie voles, humans

By Allison Scott | Bond LSC

Upon first glance, it wouldn’t seem that humans and small rodents have that much in common.

However, Larry Young extensively studies the prairie vole because their desire to mate for life.

“Prairie voles mate for life,” Young said. “That’s very unusual, in fact, only three to five percent of mammals do this.”

This commonality between the small mammal and humans allows Young to relate his research on voles to humans. His goal is to understand the neurochemical bond that occurs between two voles after mating.

Neurologically, this “pair bonding” occurs largely because of oxytocin. The brain houses receptors for this hormone that create pleasure from it. The resulting feeling’s mutual, and chemical, leading a bond to form.

“The brain’s reward system houses the receptors that make oxytocin an influential chemical,” Young said. “Prairie voles activate this when they bond.”

Young manipulates the prairie vole’s brain to try an understand why exactly pair bonding exists. He then takes brain scans of them, compares them to mice that aren’t monogamous and sees what’s happening differently in their brains. In doing so, he is able to pinpoint differences in the voles and apply that knowledge to humans.

“We should think of ourselves as part of a continuum,” Young said. “The voles have a similar makeup to humans, but we don’t say that they’re in love – we say they’re bonded.”

That distinction makes a difference in Young’s studies. However, he’s still able to learn a lot about people by observing voles, and it’s those revelations that Young enjoys most.

That insight might one day lead to treatments for autism or other disorders where issues in interaction and bonding affect people.

“The Science of Love isn’t just entertaining,” Young said. “It has the potential to change lives for the better.”

The 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, started Friday, Oct. 6 and Saturday, Oct. 7. It features six experts that research various aspects of love, relationships and connection. The event will conclude on Friday, Oct. 13 with its last speaker, Jim Obergefell, who was the plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case on marriage equality.

Balancing lust, romance and attachment

Dr. Helen Fisher

Dr. Helen Fisher opens the 13th annual LSSP symposium, The Science of Love, on Friday, Oct. 6. | photo by Allison Scott

Helen Fisher delves into the relationships we choose and why in our digital age

By Allison Scott | Bond LSC

We might not understand what drives us to establish and maintain romantic relationships, but Helen Fisher has made her living trying to figure it out.

The romantic love expert spoke Friday, October 6, in Bond LSC about the neurological reasons behind why humans behave the way they do.

“Romantic love is located right next to thirst and hunger in the brain – it’s a survival system,” Fisher said. “If we survive another million years, we will continue to fall in love.”

Fisher has worked in tandem with the dating site match.com for more than a decade to tailor sites like chemistry.com to look at how relationships actually work in our brains and in practice. Using data from match.com that represents the U.S. population, Fisher detailed how the digital age impacts the dating scene.

“Fundamentally, love isn’t changing,” Fisher said. “Courtship patterns are.”

He research indicates a tendency toward “slow love,” where partners tend to get sexually involved sooner, but are more cautious about marriage and take much longer than previous generations to pair up in that way.

Technology, meeting online and evolving social norms play  huge roles in these changes, but she argued that dating sites aren’t really dating sites at all.

“They’re introducing sites,” Fisher said. “The only real algorithm is your brain.”

These changes in how people meet influence marriage, too. She highlighted how cohabitating influences the perception of marriage and its overall impact, as well as the increased tendency for more casual sexual encounters.

“What we’re seeing now is the expanding of the pre-commitment stage of romance,” Fisher said. “Marriage used to be the beginning of a relationship, but now it’s the end.”

While modern couples often postpone marriage, Fisher notes that most people do marry before they reach the age of 50 and she feels positively toward relationship trends and the direction that romantic love is headed.

“I’m extremely optimistic,” Fisher said. “We’re marrying later and moving toward relative marriage relationship stability.”

The 13th annual Life Sciences and Society Symposium, The Science of Love, started Friday, Oct. 6 and Saturday, Oct. 7. It features six experts that research various aspects of love, relationships and connection. The event will conclude on Friday, Oct. 13 with its last speaker, Jim Obergefell, who was the plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court case on marriage equality.

The future of lab technology

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Ph.D. student Ke Gao and computer scientist Filiz Bunyak collaborate with researchers at the Bond Life Sciences Center. The pair helps advance high-throughput phenotyping by developing applications and algorithms for image analysis. | Photo by Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

Computer scientists create applications to speed up research in the lab

By Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

Three years ago, Ke Gao stood uncomfortably beside rows of biomedical students and plant scientists at the Bond Life Sciences research fair. His poster wasn’t discussing the DNA of seeds or how plants transport nutrients but rather a scientific device.

“At the beginning, the visitors didn’t understand what we were presenting, but once I explained how our application can help them accelerate their research and how we can really turn their phones into a research device, they got really excited,” Gao explained.

Gao’s presentation highlighted a mobile app that transforms images of seeds into objective, quantitative data.

It started with a simple problem. Plant scientists were manually comparing hundreds and in some cases thousands, of seed photos. The process was meticulous, slow and subjective.

The solution began with a collaboration with Michele Warmund (Plant Sciences), Tommi White (MU Electron Microscopy Core) and Filiz Bunyak (Computer Science) that led to a MU Interdisciplinary Innovations Fund grant.

Gao was part of this team that developed an algorithm to turn the photos of seeds from the field into data with the touch of the button.

Gao explained the app is very similar to Instagram.

A user takes or uploads photos of seeds. Then the app calculates measurements describing shape, color and size characteristics of the seeds. This data can be emailed or stored in a database.

Some experiments need thousands of seeds analyzed; this would be a massive feat for even a group of students. With this app, hundreds of seeds can be photographed and measured from a single photo. The app analyzes each seed individually and also computes measurement averages for groups of seeds.

There are other apps that analyze seeds, but this is the first mobile application as far as the team knows. Its ability to analyze multiple seeds at once, even if they are touching is also an outstanding ability. Bunyak’s previous experience developing applications to quantify microscopy images and videos of touching and clumping cells helped them design the algorithm to make that function possible.

This isn’t just a problem for researchers in this one lab or even at the University of Missouri.

MU Computer Science professor, Filiz Bunyak, said noninvasive methods to observe and understand biology, imaging equipment and corresponding computing devices have advanced considerably in recent years, leading scientists to produce large amounts of data. The ability for researchers to analyze and quantify this large amount of complex and unstructured data, however, was still missing. Bunyak said this app began as a project to advance scientists’ capabilities to automatically analyze image-based plant phenotyping.

Further collaboration

Bunyak and her students are advancing the field of high-throughput phenotyping beyond this mobile app.

High-throughput phenotyping (HTP) refers to the process of connecting an organism’s DNA makeup to its physical characteristics; it is also a hot topic buzzing through the science community in the last five years.

Two years ago, Bond LSC scientist David Mendoza, who studies how plants collect nutrients, said he never imagined he would be doing HTP.

“The old way of doing this is growing plants on plates and, I’m not kidding, with a ruler you measure how long the roots are,” Mendoza explained of the traditional process that now seems archaic.

Now, the lab is working with computer scientists to design a robot to code the measurements for multiple roots at a single time. For a student, it would take 15 minutes, but now it’s complete in an instant.

Speed isn’t the only reward researchers are reaping.

Bunyak said computational image analysis allows researchers to come up with new ways to quantify and study data that they were not even able to do before, leading to the design of novel experimental methods.

Ruthie Angelovici is another Bond LSC researcher who uses computer scientists to aid in her research.

She said without computer imaging there would be no way for her team to do research that measures plants physical and biochemical traits. Angelovici’s lab uses Bunyak’s mobile app system but on a computer. Eight plants are photographed at once and the application keeps track of features of plants such as shape, color and area as they develop.

What is really revolutionary to Angelovici is the ability for the data of plant growth parameters to be stored and revisited without the need to re-grow. This contrasts with past experiments where researchers would scribble some notes and never be able to return.

“It’s not lost and I think that’s a big step in this field,” Angelovici said.

The collaboration is creating more than advanced tools by fostering a new way to think and approach research.

Rather than buying pre-existing software, the groups from Bond LSC utilizes the resources on campus to build their own devices.

“I would have been in front of a black box that is doing things for me and that would not have given me the tools to teach to my students,” Mendoza reflected. “Now I know what they need to learn to be competitive. Now I know what the gaps are and how they can be filled. I think that was worth it.”

Mendoza’s team publishes all the instruction to its robot online, so the technology can aid other labs in making faster discoveries at a lower price.

Angelovici compared it to buying a cake versus making a cake — at the end of the creation process, she said she would have the knowledge to do a lot of other experiments.

This new way of thinking already began to pay off this summer when her lab expanded computer software to analyze seed size.

“We only approached it because we saw how things worked together. I just pitched a project to engineering about seed collector. Again, this opened my eyes that even undergraduates can do something not so difficult for engineers, but I have no clue how to do it,” Angelovici said.

Mendoza agreed the collaboration is exciting but challenging, “You got a Ph.D. and you got a faculty position and you think you know stuff. When I started this I realized how much I don’t know, but at the same time it reminded me that it is really cool to learn something new.”

Both teams continue to work towards maximizing the functions of their individual machines, but even after the projects reach fruition the collaboration will not be over.

“On the contrary, I think we’re going to keep building more and more and better,” Mendoza said.

Nowadays, Gao no longer feels out of place at the Life Sciences fairs. Researchers from various labs come up to him and ask how they can implement his app in their own lab.

“It seems like I’m doing something that can really help people, so that’s the best part of this process,” he said.

Ruthie Angelovici is an assistant professor in the Division of Biological Sciences and is a researcher at Bond Life Sciences Center. She received her degrees in plant science from institutions in Israel — her B.S. and M.S. from Tel Aviv University, and her Ph.D. from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the Weizmann Institute and at Michigan State University and has been at MU since fall of 2015. 

David Mendoza is an associate professor in Plant Sciences, Life Sciences Center investigator and a member of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group. His research focuses on the mechanisms plants use to resist toxic elements or acquire nutrients. He received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from UNAM in Mexico City and continued on to do post-doc training at UC San Diego.

 Filiz Bunyak is an assistant research professor in the Department of Computer Science. She received her bachelors and masters degree from Istanbul Technical University and her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri- Rolla. Her work focuses on computer imaging, image processing, and biomedical image analysis.

Ke Gao is a doctoral student in the University of Missouri’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He earned his bachelor’s of science from the Henan University of Science and Technology in China.