Tuned into Neuroscience

All is quiet as the classical quartet, Vida Strings, waits to perform. Seated in a semi-circle, the group takes in a deep, collective breath before plunging into music, their rich sound reverberating off the wood floor and high ceiling of the music hall.

With eyes closed this may seem like a normal concert, but this performance is anything but typical — netting connecting hundreds of nodes covers the musicians’ heads and faces. As they play, the nodes gather data on their brains’ electrical activity patterns.

“The fascinating thing about the brain is it is actually an electrical system,” says Flavio Frohlich, director of the Carolina Center for Neurostimulation. “The way in which individual cells function is by talking with each other through very tiny, weak, electrical impulses.”

If people experience psychiatric symptoms, Frohlich says, there is a miscommunication between electrical signals in different areas of their brain. Frohlich works to understand where this signal falters and uses a targeted approach to restore and renormalize these lines of communication.

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The Known Unknowns

Karsten Baumann balances his entire upper body over the side of the second-story porch at his home in Morrisville, retrieving a device used to gather air samples. The UNC-Chapel Hill environmental engineer at the Gillings School of Global Public Health brings the equipment into the makeshift lab in his kitchen, carefully removing each compartment to collect the filtration system within.

What is he looking for? He’s not exactly sure.

Baumann is gathering samples to detect per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — a family of chemicals used in the creation of products containing non-stick coating like cookware, food wrapping, clothing, cosmetics, carpet, and even dental floss. Because this class of chemicals contains over 5,000 different types, he will only be able to detect about 55.

Although these compounds are used in thousands of products, their impact on the environment and human health is largely unknown.

“I think the challenge has been that there haven’t been enough health studies on these compounds simply because we’re just realizing the extent of the problem, especially in the last decade or so,” says Jason Surratt, a UNC-Chapel Hill atmospheric chemist and director of the NC PFAS Testing Network — a collaboration between seven NC universities assembled to research these contaminants.

In 2016, a group of North Carolina researchers published evidence of high rates of PFAS in the Cape Fear River basin. While this unregulated family of chemicals is used in the production of everyday goods, its impact on human health is largely unknown. For the past year, scientists from UNC-Chapel Hill, five other UNC system universities, and Duke University, have researched these potentially dangerous chemicals found in drinking water sources across the state.

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Presidents Park

On the edge of a field, surrounded by bulldozers, trailers and giant mulch piles, sits a silent army of presidents. Standing almost 20 feet tall, the busts are a product of the failed Virginia Presidents Park. Mark learned about the heads this winter while scrolling through Reddit. I was stoked since he would be moving nearby when he got back from Korea, but that was all crushed when we learned it was on private property — no visitors allowed. Fast forward to this spring and I saw that the owner was finally allowing tours. We were lucky to snag a spot before they’re all moved later this summer.

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All Hands on Deck

As a storm quickly approaches, marine scientist Nathan Hall hussles to get back to shore. While he cruises through the Neuse River Estuary, students onboard shriek and laugh as the boat crashes against the swell. New to marine fieldwork, they have yet to gain their sea legs, and increasingly slide further and further to one side of the boat with each bump. 

Before the trip to the coast, the students spent the semester in Chapel Hill learning about marine organisms, their distribution, and interactions with each other and the local environment during a course taught by Joel Fodrie and Adrian Marchetti. “We try to hit the wide sweep of as many aspects of biological oceanography as we can,” Fodrie says. “Everything from nutrient availability to the role of climate change.”

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Restoring Rural China

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During the 1970s, in a rural village in the eastern Chinese province Anhui, a young Conghe Song and his family participate in collective farming to make a modest living. Countless hours are spent in the paddies cutting the plants by hand with a sickle and then replanting, literally one grain of rice at a time.

With no electricity, Song spends hours doing homework under an oil lamp. Each week, he spends a quarter for a candle so he and his classmates can work after dark — the cost, a burden on his family, he says.

Back then, college was the only way for Song to obtain a career beyond the village, but it was an uphill battle. Resources like financial aid and trained teachers went to the urban schools. He was fortunate to have a mother who was literate — in fact, the only woman in the village who could read. She helped him with his homework and was strict about his education.

“I always admired the other kids in the village. They could go to school or not and they didn’t have the consequences I would have at home if I skipped school,” Song says, laughing.

Upon graduation, just two students from Song’s high school class of 54 went on to college — and he was one of them. Now a UNC geographer, his work has led him back to rural China.

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