The science of empathy
Like many neuroscientists, Sarina Saturn began her career on the dark side. “I was all doom and gloom,” the 37-year-old Oregon State University researcher says. “We have such a pathological bias. All the funding is for researching depression.”
Unlike others, however, the Portland native has turned that inclination on its head in a career that’s taken her from New York University’s influential LeDoux lab to Berkeley to Corvallis. Saturn’s key work probes why and how we feel confident and socially connected. Her headline-grabbing finding is that our DNA has a lot to do with how smoothly we interact with others. Her more radical conclusion is that people can use that discovery to live better lives.
Saturn’s research focuses on how our genes affect our bodies’ response to oxytocin, a hormone that helps the body weather primal stress (like childbirth) and floods a woman’s body when she nurses an infant. Oxytocin also seems linked to social trust, love, and physical relaxation—“warm fuzzies,” as Saturn puts it.
A single genetic combination governs how efficiently an individual person’s cells can use oxytocin. Saturn is the first researcher to examine how variations in that sequence affect how well people both deal with stress and show empathy. Basically, her work splits humanity into two groups: call them the oxytocin rich (about 25 percent of us), and the oxytocin poor (the rest). Those whose cells make the best use of the hormone do considerably better than others in tests of social fluency—like the ability to recognize others’ emotions just by looking at their eyes. They also cope better with nerve-fraying blasts of headphone noise.
Saturn spent her early career “scaring poor rats to see what they did” and examining brain issue under microscopes. But her recent research leaves her determined to build bridges between hard, lab-based neuroscience and the nuance of social science. “Neuroscientists have always made fun of psychologists for lacking rigor,” she says. “And psychologists have always asked neuroscientists, ‘How can you study love in the lab?’ But the two fields are starting to have a common language.”
A search for reconciliation may be part of Saturn’s own nature—born Sarina Rodrigues, she traces her roots to India and the Marianas Islands and notes, with amusement, that she often must decline invitations to join Hispanic groups. Today, Saturn says she is on a “spiritual quest to help people lead healthier and happier lives,” and views her exploration of the hardwired roots of behavior as a call for compassion, more than fatalism.
“Nature colors our traits, but we can affect how we express those traits. And if we understand that, maybe we can give each other and ourselves a break sometimes.” —ZD
The biology of indoor ecosystems
Like a tropical rain forest teeming with birds, bugs, and plants, every human being is a walking ecosystem of microbes. Each one of our bodies’ cells is outnumbered by 10 bacterial cells—living things that can be hostile or beneficial. The air we breathe and the surfaces we touch are similarly wild with life. Yet modern buildings, the primary habitat for billions of humans, shape (and may damage) these invisible ecosystems in ways we don’t understand.
“We know far more about the rain forest than we know about the air around us all the time,” says Jessica Green, a 43-year-old cofounder of the University of Oregon’s Biology and the Built Environment Center. Green studies the microorganisms that inhabit the enclosed spaces where urbanized humans spend almost all of their time. She brings a hunch to this work: that modernity has become too sterile.
Green’s research shows that the sealed windows, insulation, and mechanically filtered, heated, and cooled air typical of modern buildings turn rooms into the microbial equivalent of single-species tree farms. “Intuitively, you don’t want a monoculture anywhere,” she says, “whether it’s in a wild forest or your garden. But buildings create monocultures all around us.” In the process, she notes, mechanical systems gobble lots of electricity.
To contrast indoor environments, Green and her colleagues compare the air and surfaces of rooms with open windows to those served only by mechanical ventilation. In one hospital setting they studied, open windows fostered a robust microbial mix, similar to that found outdoors on plants and in soil. In rooms full of ventilated air, the microbes were much less diverse, their populations very similar to those found on human skin. “In other words,” Green says, “we’re often essentially breathing ourselves.”
Green acknowledges that we don’t fully understand the consequences of living in such “static, homogenous” environments. But she points to established health concerns about the overuse of
antibiotics, and the “hygiene hypothesis,” the idea that excessive cleanliness contributes to asthma and allergies. Her UO team, which includes biologists and an architect, aims to learn whether buildings designed to allow greater microbial diversity could be both healthier and more energy efficient.
“We see biology as a potential link between architecture, energy use, and human health,” Green says. “The energy and resources we spend getting rid of microbes are mostly an illusion. You can’t have microbe-free skin or air. The question is, what kind of environments are we creating?” —ZD
A new beginning for Oregon hops
In late 2008, with the global financial crack-up at its bleakest, two men sat at a Portland bar. Punch line? Beer can make a great economic stimulant.
One of the pair, Jim Solberg, had left his job as a Nike executive a few years before. (He says of his 16-year run helping build the company’s international apparel business: “Sometimes, in business, the higher you go, the less fun it becomes.”) His friend, Roger Worthington, was a successful—and unsatisfied—lawyer. They mused on what their futures might hold, and found an answer in the bottoms of their glasses.
“We thought there could be opportunity in Oregon hops,” says Solberg, now a 51-year-old whose relaxed demeanor belies his past as a Stanford football player. The two grew up among the hops farms of the Willamette Valley. “So I did some research. And what I found was flat-out chaos.”
Oregon hops farmers, once go-to suppliers to the nation’s leading breweries, faced alarming decline in demand (resulting in fewer acres planted) as corporate brewing shifted to hops varieties better grown elsewhere. Meanwhile, the rapidly expanding ranks of craft brewers, who had always relied on corporate breweries’ leftover hops, faced high prices and feared future shortages.
“No brewer ever had to plan ahead, and no hops supplier existed solely to supply the craft beer market,” Solberg says. He and his partner decided to become that supplier.
Today, IndieHops, their three-year-old company, sells hops grown at small Oregon farms to craft producers here and elsewhere. To do so, IndieHops had to design, engineer, and build its own mill—Oregon’s first—for processing 200-pound bales of hops into the tiny pellets brewers use. Someday, the firm may be better known for transforming the possibilities of the crop at the center of its business.
Solberg, who runs IndieHops’ day-to-day operations, also discovered that Oregon State’s nationally significant hops-breeding program faced elimination. (Anheuser-Busch once largely funded OSU’s research; in 2008, a Belgian conglomerate took over AB and soon withdrew support.) With $1 million, IndieHops rescued and redirected the research, which now aims to develop new varieties of hops—and thus new flavors—for craft brewers to use and Oregon farmers to plant.
IndieHops already offers hops with flavors like “mixed berry” or “orange peel.” Breeding new varieties takes years, but within a decade, the research Solberg’s company funds may mean an even more wide-ranging selection of tastes.
Well beyond one night’s beery idea, IndieHops’ combination of research, agriculture, industrial processing, and craft commerce exemplifies a synthesizer’s approach to complex projects. “We are re-orienting a whole industry’s machinery,” Solberg says. “That means farmers, brewers, and scientists. I say I’m not an expert in anything—except how to find experts.” —ZD
Pioneering unmanned aircraft
Tad McGeer’s house, located north of the Columbia River Gorge amid pastures and grazing cows, hardly suggests the reinvention of an industry. In the two-car garage, however, an engineer monitors the exhaust of a fist-size, gas-powered engine. Inside, others hunch over kitchen countertops or sit on beige carpet, assembling plastic and metal parts.
“We don’t need a room full of computers,” says McGeer, 54. “What we’re building isn’t very big, so we don’t need lots of space.”
This is Aerovel, the company McGeer founded in 2006 to prototype a new aerial drone design. McGeer helped pioneer the unmanned-aircraft industry, launching landmark designs and starting the field’s top company. Today, he leads his own small team and aims for the drone world’s next great advance. Aerovel’s product, called Flexrotor, may make possible a light and quiet aircraft that can move both vertically and horizontally. Some industry experts predict that Flexrotor’s ingenious multidirectional propeller will mostly replace current drone designs by the middle of the decade.
Constant news reports about Predator strikes on the Pakistani border and predictions that surveillance drones may become commonplace over the United States have given unmanned aircraft a somewhat ominous reputation. McGeer sees—and seeks to foster—the technology’s potential for good.
“We want to do weather reconnaissance,” he says. “Geological surveys. Reconnaissance for fishing boats and the Coast Guard. Atmospheric research. Environmental research. Those would all be nice to do.”
A native of Vancouver, BC, McGeer earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from Stanford in 1983. It didn’t take him long to grow disillusioned with the stagnant commercial aircraft industry. (McGeer notes that the Boeing 787 took a decade to design and represents only a minor advance.) In 1992, he founded a company called Insitu and soon launched the ScanEagle, the first small unmanned vehicle practical to launch and retrieve from a ship or small boat.
By the early 2000s, Insitu grew into a dynamo, largely because of the US military’s splurge on drone technology. The company employed fewer than 10 people in 1994, when it moved to Hood River. Now, its more than 750 engineers and other workers have established the Gorge as the industry’s de facto drone capital. McGeer, frustrated by the company’s military focus, left in 2005, but retained an ownership stake. Boeing bought Insitu for $400 million in 2008, providing McGeer with an undisclosed but substantial amount of seed money for Aerovel.
The Flexrotor has already completed several successful test flights, and McGeer hopes to have a fully functional version ready for the market in 2013. For all his scientific idealism, McGeer is also pragmatic. His new company has already received some money and considerable interest in the Flex-rotor from the military.
“I’m not crazy about supporting ill-conceived wars,” he says. “But military uses aren’t inherently evil. If we’re going to achieve what we want in civil applications, we need volume. And to achieve volume, we need customers.” —Marty Patail