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UMaine discovery spices up ancient menus

Ancient food remains discovered in Peru by University of Maine anthropologist Dan Sandweiss are helping not only to push back the frontiers of agriculture in the Americas, but to further our understanding of how humans ate as much as 6,000 years ago.

Cutting-edge microfossil analysis performed by Smithsonian archeobiologist Linda Perry and her team on samples collected by Sandweiss and his students at Waynuna, a dig site near Alca, Peru suggest that ancient cultures were growing chili peppers, in addition to corn and other staples, to spice up their diets thousands of years ago.

A study by Perry, Sandweiss and others, recently published in the journal Science, traces the history of the cultivated pepper through seven archeological sites in the Americas. Sandweiss' samples from Peru were the spark that inspired the project, and were the only hot peppers in the study that could be identified to the species level.

Sandweiss has made microfossil collection an important part of his research since the late 1990s, working closely with Delores Piperno and Linda Perry of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History to unravel the often complex microscopic record hidden in ancient middens and the pores of grinding tools. His collaborative, multidisciplinary approach has led to several important discoveries related to early agriculture in the Americas, helping scientists and historians better understand the roles played by peppers, gourds and corn in world agriculture.

Nationalism and nuclear weapons

With the election of ultraconservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran in 2005, the country started championing nationalism ahead of Islamic interests, and nowhere is that more visible than in promotion of its nuclear program, according to a University of Maine political scientist and expert on Iran.

"Iranians tend to support the nuclear program as a matter of national pride, something that is not likely to change as long as they do not believe the program threatens their security or impinges on their standard of living," says Bahman Baktiari, writing in the January issue of Current History. "Through the state media, Iran's leadership has popularized the idea that the nation's nuclear program is about much more than nuclear weapons."

Government propaganda portrays the country's nuclear activities as a remedy to Iranians' historical dissatisfactions and as a source of hope for the future. Ahmadinejad and other conservatives in Iran's government are successfully using the nuclear issue as a means to cement their own power through nationalist fervor. In this, they have been unwittingly assisted by President Bush, Baktiari says.

"No one has benefited more from American blunders in the Middle East than the conservatives in Iran who now control all the power centers," says Baktiari.

For years, Iranian leaders promoted Islamic interests ahead of national interests. But since the Iraq invasion, they reverted to the nationalist approach promoted three decades ago by Mohammad Reza Shah.

Prescription Ethics

Trust in medicine is traditionally viewed as a one-way street of getting patients to trust their healthcare providers. What's often overlooked is the significance of physicians' trust or distrust of their patients.

"Trusting another person involves being or making oneself vulnerable in some way to her, and expecting that she will respond appropriately and benevolently to that vulnerability," says University of Maine bioethicist and philosophy professor Jessica Miller, writing in the journal Bioethics.

"Frequently, this involves a return of vulnerability and trust, creating a dynamic, mutually supporting bond of trust."

In a trusting physician-patient relationship, doctors see their patients as moral, not manipulating for ill-gotten or undeserved gain, or misrepresenting themselves or their illnesses. Mutual trust helps ensure physician and patient are working together for a common good — the patient's health.

Physician trust in patients is particularly pertinent when treatment involves pain medications like the synthetic opioid OxyContin and other drugs implicated in abuse. A physician must be aware that his or her attitudes of distrust and trust can influence interpretations of actions and behavior.

In addition, multiple factors intersect to create attitudes of trust and distrust toward particular patients. Among them: the tendency in modern Western medicine to undertreat pain; increased scrutiny by local, state and federal authorities; institutional context, such as a recent rash of scams; and social attitudes toward marginalized subgroups of patients.

Telling stories

Listening to family members share stories about the work they do, including how they make a living, can reveal subtle clues about cultural identity, values and family boundaries, according to two University of Maine communication researchers.

Professors Kristin Langellier and Eric Peterson study family storytelling — performance of narrative communication — to better understand how class, race, ethnicity, culture, generation, gender and sexuality mark differences and create complexities in negotiating family-work boundaries.

Family storytelling about work often involves give-and-take among participants that shapes, interprets and contests meanings and identities. It is the dynamic struggle over meanings and the logistics of material sustenance — internal and external boundaries — that contribute to family formation and cultural survival, according to Langellier and Peterson, who published their findings in Communication Monographs.

Medieval water quality

In the Middle Ages, some of the world's most advanced hydraulic engineering and environmental policymaking occurred in the lowlands of Holland, where inhabitants faced a constant struggle to keep the sea out and inland wetlands drained.

The introduction of hydraulic engineering — the use of dikes, dams, sluices and drainage canals — was a turning point in the history of water management in The Netherlands. The innovations replaced small, shallow ditches that were highly susceptible to flooding.

Then, as now, Dutch water boards governed the complex water control networks. Hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland, a water board near Amsterdam and The Hague that traces its roots in the late 12th century, is the oldest still in existence.

University of Maine Professor of History William TeBrake, whose research focuses on the social and environmental history of Europe, has spent the past three decades studying the medieval bylaws of Rijnland's water board that were so essential to rural life.

In archives in Holland and from microfiche loaned from the University of California-Berkeley, TeBrake spent years transcribing, editing and indexing the bylaws and decisions of the board trustees from 1253–1564. The result is a Web-based publication complete with summaries in English of the medieval transcriptions, an extensive database of key words and a glossary of terms, providing insight into the region's water-related activities — from shipping tolls and fishing regulations to measures to preserve water quality.

Snakes on the Brain

Got a fear of snakes?

Chances are the more you try and not think about the slithering reptiles, the more snake-related thoughts you'll have, according to psychology researchers at the University of Maine.

In a study of more than 70 people with and without a fear of snakes, UMaine researchers found evidence of a causal relationship between thought suppression and attentional bias in those fearing snakes.

In the past, anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive and post-traumatic stress have been linked to thought suppression — a deliberate attempt to avoid thinking about certain subjects — and attentional bias or focus. But only one other study has explored the possibility that thought suppression could cause hypervigilance typical of anxiety disorders, including phobias.

Thought suppression and attentional biases are important processes in understanding the development and maintenance of clinical disorders, according to UMaine Professor of Psychology Jeff Hecker and graduate students Tamer Fawzy and James Clark, who published their study in a recent issue of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders. That's why it's important that future research seek to understand how people with nonclinical levels of anxiety can override a tendency to focus on fearful stimuli.

The relationship between cognitive avoidance and attentional bias for snake-related thoughts was the subject of a master's thesis by Fawzy, who is now in the clinical psychology graduate program at the University of Wyoming.

Additional depth in marine science

A unique arrangement with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) in Portland, Maine, is helping further develop the University of Maine's reputation as a leader in marine ecosystem science by attracting two world-class marine scientists to the state.

Researchers Andrew Pershing and Jeffery Runge recently joined UMaine's School of Marine Sciences as joint appointments with GMRI, applying their considerable expertise in ecosystem modeling and zooplankton research toward a better understanding of the complex interactions that drive Maine's marine environments.

Pershing's research focuses on marine ecosystem modeling. He is widely recognized as a leader in the use of computer modeling and visualization techniques to better understand how the dynamics of the ocean environment influence fish and mammal populations over time. Runge's work examines how zooplankton populations are affected by temperature, wind, currents and other factors in cold-water ecosystems. Their work promises to help improve fisheries management practices and preserve the health of marine ecosystems in the Gulf of Maine.

Working at GMRI's state-of-the-art facility on Portland's working waterfront, Pershing and Runge will teach UMaine courses and advise graduate students. In addition, the research they conduct will provide students with an opportunity to benefit from the facilities and expertise available at both institutions.

Pharmaceutical partnership

Up to 30 students could be enrolled at the University of Maine this fall in a new two-year, prepharmacy program as part of a College of Pharmacy recently established by the University of New England in partnership with UMaine and four Maine hospitals.

The College of Pharmacy, located on UNE's Portland campus, will offer the subsequent four years of professional programming for students, leading to a Pharm D degree and careers as pharmacists or pharmaceutical scientists.
The college will emphasize biomedical research and address the state's crucial shortage of pharmacists.

The partnership between the two educational institutions and hospitals in Portland, Waterville, Augusta and Biddeford will allow UMaine's Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences to expand its teaching and research in pharmacology, metabolism, medicinal and natural product chemistry.

Who's Calling?

This spring, members of the University of Maine student chapter of the Wildlife Society field tested cell phone-based technology to see if they could "call" owls to determine how many there are and their whereabouts.

The students, most of them wildlife ecology majors, are among the volunteers who participated in the 2007 Maine Owl Monitoring Program (MOMP), an annual statewide survey coordinated by Maine Audubon and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. This year, March 9–April 16, from 1–4 a.m., they monitored three routes in Orono, Hudson and Brewer. Along each, the volunteers stop repeatedly to play taped calls of barred, long eared and great horned owls, and to record any responses from the nocturnal birds.

In addition, the UMaine students also tested high-tech devices developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory for Maine Audubon. The cellular devices have the ability to play recorded calls and listen for hours, recording responses in a database.

One of the questions volunteers and engineers hope to answer is whether owls hear calls made miles away and, in essence, tire of responding when volunteer monitors near their locations, thereby biasing the data.

UMaine Wildlife Society members have participated in MOMP since 2002, a year after Maine Audubon's owl census started.


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