March 2001


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Commons Room

A Slice of Campus Life

Pay Attention!

Whoa there, now. This shouldn’t be. Red is not red, and blue is not blue. Help! What you have just read could be an overheard conversation among brain cells when you look at the word "red" written in blue ink. Faced with such a contradiction, one part of the brain yells over to another part for help. A second opinion, if you will, which sheds new light on how we pay attention, according to a team of Pitt neuroscientists.

Using a new brain-imaging technique, the team determined that separate parts of the brain’s frontal lobe—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex—work together to figure out the color confusion. Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience Cameron S. Carter says that reading the word "red" written in blue ink requires careful attention. Your natural reaction is to say the word, rather than the color. The new technique—functional magnetic resonance imaging—shows the activity in the two different parts of the brain as the color problem is resolved.

Paying attention can be hard work—like when your sister-in-law pulls out her vacation pictures from 1985. The study confirms a theory that paying attention involves two separate processes: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that pays attention, and the anterior cingulate cortex lets you know when your attention is straying. When test subjects said "blue" when they saw "red" written in blue ink, activity suddenly increased in the anterior cingulate cortex. You can almost hear one group of cells yelling across the brain, "No, no, no, that’s not right!" Carter says the information may be useful in understanding a variety of attention-related problems, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder—even schizophrenia. No word on which part of the brain goes dark after switching to auto pilot. —Kris Mamula

Fighting Fire

As a child, Pitt student Allison Pauli remembers the smoky veil from forest fires that shrouded the valleys every summer near her home in Kalispell, Montana. The blue haze that marked the fire season sometimes cloaked the mountains of Glacier National Park, about a half-hour from Kalispell, population about 17,000. Pauli studied ballet for many years as a child, and later cello. But she also learned the ways of fire, its unpredictable nature and habit of destruction. The smoke was both fearsome and intriguing. Early on, almost subconsciously, she resolved to master the demon. As a high school student, Pauli enrolled in classes to become a firefighter. "I was kind of afraid of fire," she says. "That’s partly why I got into it."

Last summer was the 21-year-old Spanish major’s fourth year as a US Forest Service firefighter. She spent about two weeks fighting fires in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Later, as many of her classmates punched time clocks, Pauli was backpacking deep into the one-million-plus-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, home to the grizzly, mountain goat, and bobcat. Mule and horse brought in firefighting gear. The water she used to fight fires was sometimes lashed to her back. At times, her gear weighed 90 pounds.

Pauli’s assignment was prevention, in one instance. She helped dig firebreaks around Forest Service cabins and staple rolls of insulating, heat-resistant material, like space blankets, around the buildings. The remainder of the time, she was part of a contingent working to keep the fires contained so they didn’t escape over the wilderness boundary or threaten public trails. Workdays lasted 12 to 24 hours, and camping included nighttime temperatures that sometimes dipped below freezing. But the money was good. In fact, the wage was one of the things that attracted her to the work. With shift differential and other bonuses, Pauli could earn more than $20 an hour. Flipping burgers couldn’t even come close.

Then came the assignment one day to monitor a blaze on the west face of Mud Lake Mountain in the big Bob Marshall. Pauli was alone. Using binoculars from a safe distance, she studied the fire during a shift that stretched 14 hours, radioing periodic reports about the weather and burn to supervisors. As though little more than a household chore, the fire was slowly, methodically turning trees and vegetation into a black scar.

Then the weather suddenly changed. The wind kicked up; a cold front moved in. "When the upper branches catch fire," Pauli says, "that’s when fire can make its major runs." And so it happened. As Pauli watched, a roar "like a dozen jets overhead" filled the Montana sky as the mountain face of fire and pine exploded into a sea of flames reaching 30 stories high. In all, some 3,500 acres were soon blackened, she says, still awestruck, months later: "I was just amazed."

In a few months, Pauli will graduate and begin her professional career. Her firefighter days may be over; she plans to become a graphic designer. A childhood fear vanquished by staring down what frightened her, Pauli is ready for the world. —KM

The Familiar Country of Memory

Pay attention to these memories. They are not your own, but to consider them is to understand a story as if it were your own. Here at the University Art Gallery, studio arts prof Delanie Jenkins has crafted a universal blueprint. The piece, titled "Tether," is part of Cross Currents, a recent exhibit of the work of 13 women artists.

The tethers, indeed, catch your eyes first. They spring upward at a 45-degree angle from an Olympia manual typewriter mounted on a pedestal, near the entrance. Actually 270 strands of 12-pound-test fishing line, the tethers rise from the machine, pass through eye bolts in a wall, and head downward, stretching taut over 14 hanging photographs. The photos are close-ups of the faces of Jenkins’ family, with a focus on the eyes. Above them, and around much of the room, Jenkins has hung 24 framed needlework birds. She found the needlework in her grandmother’s closet after her grandmother died.

If you squint, you finally see the narrative. Glued halfway up each wall is a pine-strip molding painted red. Jenkins has typed a message on the slender strips, letters capital and askew. "This story is about reconciliation and attempting to fit the circle of life into this rectangle of a room," the text begins. The images come to life. Jenkins, back home visiting family in East Texas, contemplates the smell of reunions and the fertile "red dirt" soil and the "sticky hot sweetness of molasses on fried bread in hundred degree temperatures with 90 percent humidity while bombarded by bugs as big as baseballs." You begin to follow her down the street as she chases the "sharecropper perspiration snuff smell of great grandfather" through a crowd. You hear the red-winged blackbirds fluttering near the railroad tracks—"the tracks I laid across on the day after my wedding," she writes. You follow her on what she calls a "train of thinking you often get on that embarks on one platform and arrives in a foreign country."

For Jenkins, the narrative continues in Pittsburgh, where she says that she feels truly at home for the first time in years. But in the gallery, you are with her as she spins through the rooms of her memory, the shrines of her past. And you are grateful, as she is, for the "bounty of remembering and tasting and smelling and touching." Because you just might have recognized, as she probably hoped, that everyone’s story is similar in this one way: Our memories are in many respects who we are. —David R. Eltz

Narrow Escape

After attending a conference of volcanologists in Indonesia, Pitt geology and planetary science professor Michael Ramsey was coaxed into hiking to the top of Mt. Semeru, a volcano in a national park on the island of Java. Along with several Indonesian researchers and colleagues Paul Kimberly and Lee Siebert, of the Smithsonian Institution, Ramsey reached the summit early on July 27, 2000. Steam and ash erupt from Semeru, on average, every 20 minutes. But as Ramsey explains, what happened that morning was far from average. He was 100 yards away when molten rock exploded to the surface.

"I grabbed a student from the Netherlands, who was yelling in shock, by the shoulder and threw us both over the ridge away from the direct blast. For the next 40 seconds it was a matter of trying to keep those hot rocks, small ones all the way up to softball size, off your head. Those things come out at about 700 degrees Celsius. Some of the guys who were closer got hit by molten stuff, so it splattered against them and burned them. Two of the Indonesians died of massive head injuries.

"Paul’s arm was clearly broken. He had some severe burns on his arm, back, and thighs, and some deep lacerations. Lee had a pretty good knock on his head. Luckily for all of us, no one had any major head or leg injuries except for my foot. It was hit hard, causing burns and broken toes. We were able to walk…but we were the walking wounded, for sure.

"The Indonesians who were up at the summit were concerned about their colleagues, obviously, so they walked back to look at the bodies. I was basically triaging everyone there. The idea was to get us down to the first base camp area. There’s a small lean-to shelter there that was built by the park service. We got down there about noon. The Indonesians came down a few hours later and spent the next few hours radioing for help. We were told a helicopter was on the way. Then it wasn’t. All afternoon it was a matter of false hopes.

"As it became dusk, we realized we weren’t getting off the mountain that day. We had to batten down for the night and keep alive and awake. I had to suture Paul’s shoulder wound and keep him out of shock. In the morning, we got socked in with clouds, and it started to rain. There was no way a helicopter was going to reach us.

"The village was probably nine miles away. The only way we were going to get out was to walk out. Some porters from the village cut down a few trees, made a makeshift gurney for Paul, and we walked in procession behind them. It took 12 hours to get down off the mountain.

"Now, several months after all this tragedy, all the survivors are doing well. Paul and Lee are back at work at the Smithsonian, and Paul hopefully is done with surgery. (He had his last one in late November on his hand.) We’ve created a fund, with personal donations from us and others in the volcanological community, to help aid the families of the two Indonesians killed. That money will go toward the education of their children and the care of their relatives."


See the robot. Her plastic head shimmers like stainless steel as a technician removes the gunmetal-gray tarp enshrouding her. The eyes are round and as engaging as a human’s. But the penny-sized pupils are actually cameras. The head swivels. The eyes follow you. It is as if you have her undivided attention. Meet "Pearl," the prototype of a personal assistant for the elderly, a nursebot, if you will. This is what collaboration between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon can produce.

A team of more than 50 computer scientists, robotics designers, nursing experts, and students have worked on the project since its inception at Pitt’s School of Nursing in April 1999. It was born during a workshop about "quality of life" planned by Pitt nursing professor Jacqueline Dunbar-Jacob. One of the guest speakers, Sebastian Thrun, co-director of the Robot Learning Lab at CMU, spoke on the importance of robots in the future, of course, and his enthusiastic insistence that it was the perfect time to create a robot to help the elderly, as America’s population quickly ages, turned more than a few heads at Pitt. When Thrun called a week later to talk with Dunbar-Jacob, the process that would result in Pearl was in full swing. Sort of. "We knew something exciting was going to be done, but we didn’t know exactly what," Dunbar-Jacob says.

The direction would become clear quickly when Dunbar-Jacob and Thrun put their heads together with members of Pitt’s computer science department. They realized the creation of this specific robot would not be daunting—if there were cooperation between the universities. There was—and how. Pitt’s nursing professors pointed out the functions of today’s nurse. Pitt’s computer sciences department designed a remarkable program that allows the robot to schedule and learn about its patients. Thrun and his CMU robotics designers built the first model by September. Last fall, they began tests on Pearl, the second prototype.

What a marvel of modern technology she is. Created on the premise that the elderly can easily become forgetful, lonely, and isolated, Pearl, through a voice-activated web browser, can find the weather forecast over the Internet. She might play a game of checkers, using a built-in computer screen. Pearl will remind her patient that it’s time to take medicine, the type, amount, and frequency programmed by her makers. And yet, using software designed at Pitt, the robot will watch the patient’s daily activities and respond to his or her needs. For instance, if a doctor wants Pearl to remind her patient to take medicine at 8 a.m., but the patient sleeps late one morning, Pearl will wait to give the reminder. This way, the robot performs its function without intruding too much on the person’s individual freedom. "What we’re looking at is an advance reminder, advance communication device that could provide some safety, some companionship, for the individual," says Dunbar-Jacob.

She is that and more. You could say Pearl is like Rosie, the multifaceted robot from The Jetsons. Wouldn’t it be amazing if, as her designers intend, Pearl leads to the development of robots that keep our elderly at home, relatively healthy, instead of in nursing homes? And all it took was a little working together. —DRE

Arts—and Sciences

Biomedical engineering and the arts: the perfect match—at least according to biomedical engineering senior Christy Wright, who says much of her academic career has been spent in a research lab. "We go to these things to get away," says Wright, as she headed to Pittsburgh’s O’Reilly Theater to see a play. "It gives our minds a break." What does engineering have in common with the arts? "Engineering is total creativity," she says, her voice growing a tad defensive. "We’re not just number crunchers."

What about emergency medicine and the arts? Another perfect match, this time for senior Margarita Tran, who is majoring in the history and philosophy of science while studying to be a paramedic at the Center for Emergency Medicine. Tran joined Wright in seeing Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of You Can’t Take it With You. Weekends find Tran pulling a volunteer shift with a community ambulance service located south of Pittsburgh. When she’s not hitting the books or helping her community, Tran is answering emergency calls with city paramedics as part of her training. A Sunday afternoon at the theater was exactly the kind of break that she had in mind. "It’s relaxing," says Tran, who says she enjoys opera and ballet performances as well. "It’s a different perspective."

Pitt students saw the play as part of the three-year-old Pitt Arts program, sponsored by the Office of the Provost. Students are provided transportation and free or cheap tickets for cultural entertainment events. Theater, studio tours, symphony, ballet, art gallery openings—something for every taste.

"We’re partnering with the arts community to extend our campus to Pittsburgh’s greater urban setting and the culture it affords," says coordinator Jen Saffron. What’s more, the program gives students a behind-the-scenes look at the arts community by arranging backstage tours and private meetings with directors and actors. Pitt Arts is among only a handful of such programs nationwide. And the city’s arts community loves it, too, Saffron adds, because it gives them a chance to groom tomorrow’s arts patrons.

The program is also giving students another reason to think about settling in Pittsburgh after graduation. In 1997, its first year, some 3,200 students took advantage of opportunities at Phipps Conservatory, the Carnegie, Mattress Factory, and other venues. That number ballooned to 18,000 students last year. What’s more, fully half of the participants are majoring in the hard sciences.

"It’s about enriching their lives, living a more authentic and creative life," Saffron says. —KM

Don’t Slam It Till You’ve Tried It

Adam and Eve may have been the first to learn about love, but poetry slamming about love is another matter altogether. So much for historical context for an art form that has roots as old as the spoken word and as new as the New York City punk scene of the mid-1970s. With the energy of a boxing match, poetry slams have evolved into a particularly urban phenomenon that is growing in popularity nationwide. Part lyrical reading, part performance, all slams are contests of sorts. Winners receive audience approval—sometimes more. Cash was awarded to the three best slammers in a contest last fall that was sponsored by Kuntu Repertory Theatre and In Pittsburgh, a weekly arts magazine. Love and relationships were the theme of the slam.

Pitt was well represented. The first- and second-place winners were Pitt students; the third has participated in a University-affiliated writing workshop for five years. "I write. I inspire. I hope," says second-place winner Ntal Alimasi, a 38-year-old native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa, who is working on his doctorate degree in international and development education. "Everybody has their own calling." With echoes of Romeo and Juliet, an African man falls in love and asks an American woman to marry him in Alimasi’s "Loving across Cultures." "I’ve made up my mind to ask you to marry me but Lord am I scared!" the poem opens.

Film and business major Brennen Jones says he entered the slam contest on a whim. A 20-year-old junior who was born in Germany and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Jones took third place for "Stranger to My Heart," an ode to getting up the nerve to introduce himself to a beautiful woman. Gauging the audience’s interest was just a matter of watching their eyes, Jones says. About poetry, he adds: "Right now I’m doing it for fun."

First-place winner Frances Lee Wilson calls the Kuntu Writers’ Workshop that she has attended for five years her second home. "Writing is nourishing for me," says the 47-year-old Wilson, whose day job is managing a community library program. "It’s not about age—it’s about what you have to say." The twice-monthly workshop was started in 1976 by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson and Pitt Africana Studies professor Rob Penny. Wilson’s winning poem, "The Call," is about a woman’s mental image of the man she loved as they talked on the telephone.

"There’s nothing like the cascading of words in our hearts," says Wilson, who has conducted writing workshops for teen gang members in one of Pittsburgh’s toughest neighborhoods. "Poetry will always be with us." The future of slamming looks pretty bright as well. —KM

On Presidential Sleep

Robert Novak, conservative syndicated columnist and commentator on CNN and Crossfire, will tell you he prefers a "lazy" president. Consider what he said during a lecture at Pitt’s American Experience Program series:

"When Calvin Coolidge was president, out of every 24 hours, he slept 13. I don’t know how much Ronald Reagan slept, but he used to come in around 9 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m. He once told a dinner of journalists: ‘I never heard that hard work hurt anybody, but I certainly didn’t want to take a chance.’

"We’ve had a lot of workaholics. Two of the greatest in the history of our country were Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon; they damned near wrecked this country between them. So I really do prefer a president making Zs on the White House bed rather than plotting bombing sites in Vietnam."

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