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Harvard’s Dulac breaks down parenting behavior

Posted: 20 Apr 2018 10:00 AM PDT

Why do some people appear to be natural parents, while others smother their children, ignore them, or become abusive?

Catherine Dulac sought answers in the brains of mice.


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Dulac, the Higgins Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, worked with a team of fellow scientists to describe how separate pools of neurons control individual aspects of parenting behavior in mice. The pioneering work is described in an April 11 paper published in Nature.

"Any social behavior, whether it's fighting or mating or parenting — it's not one thing, it's multiple things," Dulac said. "What's fascinating is no one had ever determined how social behaviors are controlled. With this particular example of parenting, we showed that each discrete step is controlled by a different set of neural projections.

"Because this complex behavior is built from smaller parts, each of those pools can be regulated differently," Dulac added. "So you can imagine circumstances where those parts may be working better or worse, leading to differences in parenting."

The new study grew out of Dulac's 2014 discovery that galanin neurons in the brain's medial preoptic area were responsible for regulating parental behavior.

When the neurons were activated, sexually inexperienced male mice turned from attacking pups to grooming them instead. When researchers turned the neurons off in sexually inexperienced females, they ignored pups rather than grooming them.

With that information as a foundation, Dulac and her team used genetic tools to understand precisely how galanin neurons control parenting behavior by tracing which brain areas send signals to the neurons.

"What we found is these neurons get information from all over the brain," Dulac said. "But we also found they send projections to multiple brain areas, including four that each appear to regulate a particular aspect of parenting behavior."

One projection, Dulac said, stimulates the brain region responsible for controlling the motor aspects of parenting — sniffing and grooming pups, retrieving them to the nest, and more.

"If we activate this particular set of projections in an animal that is not a parent, they begin to act like a parent — they retrieve the pups and groom them," she said. "And if we inhibit them in animals which are parents, there's no longer any parenting behavior."

A second projection had no effect on motor behavior, but instead controlled the mice's motivation to interact with pups.

"If you put a barrier between an animal and the pups, stimulating that particular projection will enhance their desire to get across the barrier to the pups," Dulac said.

That region controls only the mouse's desire to reach the pups, Dulac noted, not motor behaviors such as grooming, so while exciting the neurons will make mice work furiously to reach pups, once there, they largely ignore them.

The third projection affects how mice with pups react to other mice. Activated mice are less likely to interact with intruders, while lower activation causes mice to ignore pups in favor of interacting with other mice. The fourth projection, meanwhile, drives hormone changes that appear in parent mice.

Because each projection is controlled by a separate pool of galanin neurons, each can be individually regulated, leading to a wide variety of parenting behaviors.

"This particular configuration or architecture is very similar to what has been found in the spinal column for the control of motor behaviors," Dulac said. "When you walk or you run, different muscles are engaged, and each does something different. In the motor system, each muscle is controlled by a different pool of motor neurons. What we found here is where each component of a social behavior is also controlled by different pools of neurons."

Going forward, Dulac hopes to explore ways to manipulate each projection to pinpoint its role in controlling behavior, and to understand whether similar systems of neurons are preserved in humans.

"Every time people have identified a population of neurons doing something in the hypothalamus, it's preserved across all vertebrates," Dulac said. "The neurons involved in reproduction, they're found in everything from fish to humans. The same for areas involved in everything from stress to sleep to feeding behavior.

"I would bet the same neurons are going to be found in the human brain doing the same thing."

This research was supported with funding from Human Frontier Long-Term Fellowship, an EMBO Long-Term Fellowship, a Sir Henry Wellcome Fellowship, the Fondation pour la Recherche Médicale, an NIH K99 award, a NARSAD Young Investigator award, a Howard Hughes Gilliam Fellowship, a Harvard Mind Brain and Behavior faculty grant, the National Institutes of Health, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

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Extension School’s Sustainability Program is in step with the times

Posted: 20 Apr 2018 09:30 AM PDT

Landslides. Wildfires. Hurricanes. Floods. Natural disasters are becoming more frequent and disruptive, and as they increase, so does the attention being paid to the fragility of natural systems and the loss of biodiversity.

Today, more than 350 matriculated students and approximately 1,800 open-enrollment students are studying in the Harvard Extension School Sustainability Program — an increase of approximately fivefold over a decade ago.

The Harvard T.H, Chan School of Public Health's John Spengler, the Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation and one of the program's co-founders, has seen the program blossom from a few online courses in the mid-1990s. Interest in sustainability "kept building, eventually becoming an important mantra that began to attract people," he said. "We first called it the Sustainable Environmental Management Program, which morphed into today's Sustainability Program."

“[W]e're seeing companies taking more responsibility for what they make and sell. … This program is a reflection of where the job market is headed,” says Thomas P. Gloria. Photo by Greg Aimo
According to Megan Epler Wood, an instructor at the Extension School and director of the Chan School's International Sustainable Tourism Initiative, "The growth of the tourism economy is creating stresses on local destinations and their nonrenewable resources. … The rapid growth of aviation is driving greenhouse gas emissions, heightening the need for sustainable tourism."

Today companies in nearly every industry are taking a closer look at their sustainability practices. "Organizations are increasingly charged with modifying business practices to protect the planet's finite resources," said Thomas P. Gloria, director of the Sustainability Program. "As a result, we're seeing companies taking more responsibility for what they make and sell, along with growing global concerns around issues of human health and the environment. This program is a reflection of where the job market is headed."

Tackling the challenges

The Sustainability Program offers a master's degree track as well as a choice of five graduate certificates ranging from corporate sustainability and environmental policy to green building and natural resource management. The flexible, world-class distance model offers more than 120 courses, including Epler Wood's "Environmental Management of International Tourism Development," "Ecotourism and Sustainable Development," and "Sustainable Tourism, Regional Planning, and Geodesign."

Yehia F. Khalil, a professor at Yale University and an alumnus of the Sustainability Program, said it offers "science-based knowledge about sustainable development, the social responsibility of organizations to protect the environment, and ways in which we can protect our ecosystem from the unintended consequences of products that are not designed for the environment."

Senior ecologist David Orwig leads a group of sustainability students on a tour of Harvard Forest as part of a class field trip.

Photo by Greg Aimo

By incorporating global health and climate change insights, the program broadens students' understanding of the relationship between sustainability and human health. Alumna Skye Flanigan, program manager for the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Chan School, said, "Through the program, I began to think of sustainability as a public health issue, not just an environmental one. Taking care of our planet and operating sustainably is critical for the health of future generations. In my job, we work hard to communicate those values, whether by producing quality science or convening thought leaders who shape business practices that impact the world."

"Right from the start, the Sustainability Program gave me fundamental information, a broader perspective on environmental issues, and the confidence to talk about climate change and other challenges with a variety of audiences," said current student Donna Hazard, the interim president and CEO of the New England Aquarium. "It is unlikely that I would have had the necessary perspective for these roles without my experience in the program."


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Harvard filmmaker’s documentary in Tribeca spotlight

Posted: 20 Apr 2018 09:00 AM PDT

Lance Oppenheim, based at Harvard the past three years, has never let his camera stray too far from a sense of home.

A junior concentrating in Visual and Environmental Studies, Oppenheim will premiere his latest film, "The Happiest Guy in the World," at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday. The 10-minute documentary gives a glimpse into the life of Mario Salcedo, who has lived aboard a cruise ship for two decades.

"Adopting a cruise-ship life is basically escaping from reality," Salcedo says in the film. "You are basically exiting the world as you know it on land and you are saying, 'I don't want to be a part of it anymore.' I want to create my own little world and I want to be away from all the issues that come up with being on land."

In an email interview, Salcedo said Oppenheim offered him a unique opportunity.

"How could you turn down a Harvard student? I would regret it later. There was no doubt in my mind, as our conversations progressed before the project was launched, that Lance was truly passionate about undertaking this assignment."

Oppenheim's enthusiasm for film began in his own swampy backyard. Growing up in Southwest Ranches, Fla., he found the perfect setting for his budding movie obsession in the Everglades.

"Since I was 6, I would spend hours watching movies and music videos, memorizing extremely trivial information about production budgets and MPAA ratings," said Oppenheim, who as a fourth-grader dressed up as Steven Spielberg, as opposed to, say, E.T., for Halloween. "While other kids were going out for sports teams and trading 'Yu-Gi-Oh!' cards, I was already a 40-year-old, fedora-wearing film snob.

"Growing up on a faux-ranch swamp populated by cows, I was always fascinated by how many Floridas existed outside of the romanticized, sunny Florida image. It seemed like there were so many stranger-than-fiction stories, and that trying to do justice to someone else's story would be far more interesting than attempting to rip off my favorite Darren Aronofsky movies."

Lance Oppenheim dressed up as Steven Spielberg for Halloween in the fourth grade.

Oppenheim dressed up as Steven Spielberg for Halloween in the fourth grade.

"The Dogmatic," which he directed at age 16, tells the story of a group of nail technicians turned vigilante dog rescuers.

"They would break into very dangerous people's homes and steal back dogs that had been taken in by these drug peddlers, horse-meat smugglers, pretty much the very people that choose to live in a place like the Everglades for the sole reason of not wanting to be found," Oppenheim said. "They used knives and guns and ripped through people's fences. They probably thought I was some kid who barely knew how to use a camera and the film wouldn't get seen, but Vimeo ended up naming the film a staff pick. It got more than 55,000 views — way more than the 100 or so friends with whom I had shared the film."

Enrolling at Harvard, he immersed himself in VES courses, including Ross McElwee's yearlong "Introduction to Nonfiction Filmmaking" — "one of the best experiences I've ever had," Oppenheim said. As a student in "Documentary Fictions," taught by Joana Pimenta, he started work on "Happiest Guy."

"I tend to shoot my films prior to determining what my aim or target aim truly is," he said. "This class made me slow down. We worked with 16 mm film, and just being able to have the opportunity to work with celluloid was incredible. Being the intermediary forces you to become one with what you are shooting. It made me very aware of how I deal with people."

McElwee, set to serve as Oppenheim's senior thesis adviser, was impressed by the young filmmaker from the start.

"Lance was no beginner, but he dove into the course and worked hard with his classmates to make a compelling film centered on an eccentric [Bernie] Sanders supporter," he said. "He has a driving curiosity about other people's lives — a great attribute for a documentary filmmaker — as well as tremendous drive and confidence in himself."

Oppenheim's sister, Melissa '12, who works at Facebook, produced "Happiest Guy," which The New York Times plans to post on May 1. The Times has featured two other Oppenheim works. The first, "Long-Term Parking," told the story of airline workers living in a parking lot at Los Angeles World Airports. Last December, "No Jail Time: The Movie" focused on defense attorneys who create tear-jerking documentaries to sway the court.

On the set of "The Happiest Guy in the World."

Behind the scenes of "The Happiest Guy in the World."

Photo by Melissa Oppenheim

"A lot of my films are inspired by the work of my parents," Oppenheim said. "During the recession, my parents — both real-estate attorneys — were forced to transition from representing home builders to people losing their homes. These stories implanted an idea that I continue to explore with my work, of just what a home truly means today, both in Florida and across the country."

Though he'll turn to a longer-form documentary this summer, Oppenheim feels confident that 10 minutes with his "Happiest Guy" will give viewers plenty of time to consider Salcedo's choices — as well as deeper questions of fantasy and facade.

"Mario is a god on the sea, a cruising king," he said. "I admire what he's done with his life, shirking from responsibility to do what he's always wanted to do, but also living a life filled with paradoxes. Everyone's a visitor and he's always permanent.

"The challenge of the film was trying to figure out what keeps him away from returning to land, but then I realized his fantasy had taken on a reality of its own, and that it was in that freedom that Mario had finally found home."

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