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Dr. Dean

Oracular Science: Fiction to Fact?

Bite Size

Cleaner Fuel?
Dr. Dean

Florida State's spanking new med school is off and running, and with a leader that might be, well, just what the doctor ordered. In April, Dr. Joseph E. Scherger from the University of California Irvine's College of Medicine was tapped as dean of the new school by Provost Larry Abele.

By any measure, Scherger, 50, appears to be a fine fit for the start-up program, the first med school of its kind to open up in 20 years. Created to supply rural and underserved areas of Florida with physicians trained in geriatric and primary care, the new school stands to get a jump-start from Scherger's experience and personal interests.

At Irvine, Scherger served as associate dean of primary care, as well as professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine. He comes from a rural background in Delphos, Ohio and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Dayton in 1971 before going on to med school at UCLA.

After finishing a family practice residency at the University of Washington in 1978, Scherger spent the next two years treating migrant workers in California. He then opened a private practice in Dixon, California where he split his time between his practice and teaching med students at UC Davis.

Scherger's career as an educator reflects a strong bent toward serving the elderly and revamping the way this country distributes health care. For example, he has staunchly advocated the expansion of e-mail and the Internet as delivery tools for health-care providers, and has used his influence on the boards of such national groups as the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Board of Family Practice and the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine to promote this idea, along with his other special interests in end-of-life care, obesity and overall health-care reform.

Scherger greeted the charter class of 30 students on the school's opening day, May 7. "Patients deserve the best care no matter who they go to, even in the small towns in the Panhandle," Scherger told his audience.

All of school's students are from Florida, and at least a third of them come from small hometowns. Ninety percent of the students say they are pursuing careers in primary care or general practice medicine. They are on track to graduate in 2005. (Visit www.med.fsu.edu for more on Dean Scherger and the FSU College of Medicine.

A Good Fit for Florida Youth
A cheeseburger and fries for lunch, pizza for dinner, one last cigarette to finish off the day's pack, a couple hours "vegging out" in front of the television–that's an average day in the life of a growing segment of American youth.

Figures from the Centers for Disease Control's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey say that as of 1999, 13 percent of the nation's kids aged six to 11 and 14 percent of teens were overweight, both up from 11 percent in 1994. Poor eating habits combine with a dearth of physical activity have children waging the same battle of the bulge as their parents and facing similar odds in fighting cardiovascular disease.

Then there's the nasty tobacco trend. Fully two million children between 12 and 17 are regular smokers—and 3,000 of their peers join them every day. Stats show that high school-age smokers, when compared to their non-smoking peers, are less physically fit, are 2.4 times more likely to be in poor health and three times more likely to have emotional problems.

But a program launched in 1999 by the FSU Center for Study of Teaching and Learning, partnered with the American Heart Association, shows promise for slowing this pernicious trend among Florida's young and reckless.

Funded by the Florida Department of Health, the program has been introduced so far to roughly 10,000 Florida children in more than 100 schools statewide. It relies primarily on peer mediation techniques and self-esteem building strategies to encourage kids to get fit and kick or avoid the lighting-up habit.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the FSU evaluation found the program's best success to be in schools that formed partnerships with community organizations, such as local businesses, community youth programs and area public health organizations.

Robert Rider, director for the FSU center, says the evaluation found that overall, the "fitness I.Q." of elementary and middle-school graduates of the program jumped significantly. Muscle strength and endurance was evaluated the old-fashioned way—by putting kids through a battery of calisthenics, mainly curls, push-ups and sit-ups.

Elementary students improved six percent on curl repetitions, 14 percent on push-ups and 13 percent on sit-ups. Middle school students improved the physical fitness level by nine percent in the curl category, 11 percent with push-ups and six percent when it came to the number of sit-ups completed successfully. High school students showed very little improvement— curls (four percent), sit-ups (eight percent) and push-ups (zip).

General fitness knowledge also increased overall (based on the use of two age-appropriate surveys)— nine percent increase for elementary students, 11 percent increase for middle schoolers and a 58 percent increase for high school participants.

Typically, fifth grade is when a child has to make the first decision about whether or not to use tobacco products, so the program arrived just in time for hundreds of potential tobacco consumers. Rider's team found that knowledge of the harmful effects of tobacco use went up (32 percent—elementary age, three percent—middle school age and seven percent— high school age) and accordingly, tobacco use went down. Over the course of the five-month long program, a significant number of elementary school (30 percent) and middle school (22 percent) participants stopped using tobacco products altogether.

Complete details on the FSU findings can be found on the center's website: http://www.fsu.edu/~ctl/Tobacco2.htm

Oracular Science: Fiction to Fact?
Thousands of years before the psychic friends hotline, a town near the coast of ancient Greece drew crowds anxious for a glimpse into the future.

The phenomenon—which persisted for more than 2,000 years until Christian rulers squashed it in the name of ridding Greece of demonic influences—lives on in the legend of the Oracle at Delphi.

Fate-seekers from far and wide would gather in a special chamber deep inside a temple dedicated to the god Apollo to listen to "the Pythia"—a woman, sitting alone and obviously entranced—channel prophetic messages from the deity.

Ancient writers attributed the Pythia's powers to trances caused by a gaseous vapor issuing from a fissure in the bedrock upon which Apollo's temple sat. For lack of evidence, the scientific community has largely dismissed any geological connection to the Delphic myth.

Until now. Five years of study have convinced a team of researchers that this storied piece of Greek fiction turns out to be rock-solid fact. The findings of the group—which included scientists from Wesleyan University, the University of Louisville and FSU oceanographer Jeffrey Chanton—were published in a February issue of the journal Geology.

According to the Greek chroniclers, the famous, trance-like state of the Delphic oracle could only be induced in a small, enclosed chamber underneath the temple's main level. The Pythia would sit on a tall, tripod stool and inhale fumes emanating from either a natural fissure or spring. Plutarch, the high priest of the temple around the end of the first century A.D., wrote that the gas had a sweet, perfume-like odor.

The researchers describe Greece as lying in a "tectonic vise" constantly jostled and squeezed by the African, Anatolian and Italian plates and sub-plates.

One fault line, the Delphi, runs directly beneath the city. Another fault line, which the researchers dubbed the Kerna, was discovered falling in a diagonal line along a series of springs. The Kerna fault runs right under the temple, as indicated by an ancient springhouse built just below and south of the oracular chamber.

Linear projections put the intersection of the two faults right beneath the temple. Evidence suggests that the fissure beneath the sanctuary referred to by the ancients was a minor offshoot of where these two fault lines converge.

If the mystery of the fissure was solved, what about the fumes and the spring? Where fractures intersect, Chanton says, rock is generally more permeable, allowing gas and water to seep to the surface. Geological and archaeological evidence suggests the existence of at least eight springs during the pinnacle of Delphi's religious prominence (only two springs exist today).

As for the fumes, Chanton says that many archaeologists mistakenly assume that gaseous emissions can only come from volcanic activity. But gases can also be produced by bituminous limestone, the bedrock upon which the ancient temple stood, he said. Heat from tectonic plate shifting could easily cause the chemicals in the bedrock to vaporize and then float to the surface.

In fact, the researchers even identified specific gases which the Pythia may very well have breathed during command performances so long ago. Water from the Kerna spring and samples from calcite-like rock deposits at the temple ruins were found to contain light hydrocarbon gases, including ethylene, known to produce narcotic effects. The gas also has a sweet smell, which may account for Plutarch's description.

Chanton and his colleagues believe all the evidence strongly suggests that Delphi's temple to Apollo was built to strategically concentrate and contain the gases from the springs, to provide the maximum intoxicating effect for the oracle. In their paper, the researchers conclude that the ancient writings on the geological phenomenon behind the powers of the Delphic oracle are grounded in science.

Whether the oracles could foresee the future any better than today's tele-psychics is another matter.

Bite Size
At the close of the Jurrassic Age 150 million years ago, Allosaurus roamed the earth as a top-of-the-line, ton-and-a-half predator. Surprisingly, a new study shows that the bite of this fierce, pre-historic beast didn't pack as much punch as a modern day alligator.

In a review recently published in the journal Nature, FSU paleontologist Gregory Erickson described how modern medical technology was the key that unlocked fascinating insight into how the business end of Allosaurus worked.

Erickson is credited as the first scientist to figure out the biting force of Allosaurus' much larger cousin (Tyrannosaurus rex).

His work was cited by Allosaurus researcher Emily Rayfield of Cambridge University in England.

Until recently, paleontologists were only able to peer into the internal workings of dinosaurs by studying cross-sections or broken ends of bones, Erickson said. Extracting a skeleton, especially a complete skull, was rarely done, because of the great likelihood that the specimen would be harmed in the process.

In the past few years, paleontologists have been successful in using a common medical X-ray technology—the CAT scan (for computerized axial tomography)—to study samples. Such scans allow specimens to remain intact while scientists differentiate between bones and teeth and the rock that has formed around them--a crucial distinction.

Rayfield and her colleagues converted CAT data into a series of data points, which then were used to generate a highly accurate three-dimensional image of Allosaurus' skull. Erickson says they then combined this information with data on the material properties of bone and the forces generated theoretically by jaw muscles, resulting in an impressive biomechanical model of the dinosaur's head. The analysis found that the 1.4-ton Allosaurus had a surprisingly light bite, similar to a modern wolf or leopard.

Nonetheless, an Allosaurus' chomp was most assuredly lethal. Equipped with 80 or more knife-like teeth, the beast probably fed on large and small dinosaurs, chasing down its prey and inflicting quick, slashing bites—a hunting style similar to the modern Komodo dragon. Rather than meeting a swift, painless end—a T. rex specialty—the Allosaurus' prey most likely bled to death.

Erickson says such studies, which marry computer technology with engineering techniques, are opening up exciting, unexplored chapters throughout dinosaur science.

Cleaner Fuel?
If oil companies have any hope of meeting tough new federal standards for cleaner-burning gasoline and diesel fuel, they will need to find faster and better ways to identify pollutants in crude oil, says FSU analytical chemist Alan Marshall.

In February, the Bush Administration decided to uphold new clean-air regulations formulated during the last year of the Clinton Administration. The rules call for stricter limits on the amounts of sulfur and nitrogen compounds—notorious for their harmful impacts on health and the environment—in the exhaust from heavy-duty trucks and buses. One of the toughest requirements mandates that the amount of sulfur in diesel fuel be cut by 97 percent by 2010.

When released through burning, sulfur forms sulfur dioxide gas and other airborne pollutants that contribute to respiratory and other health problems and form the largest component of acid rain, an environmental contaminant that spans the globe.

Identifying sulfur- and nitrogen-containing compounds in crude oil is the first step in getting rid of them, says Marshall, who claims his lab has developed the world's fastest and most accurate method for identifying such compounds.

"There are at least 10,000 different compounds in a typical sample of crude oil, and sorting them all out is ordinarily a very tedious, time-consuming process," says Marshall. "Our technique can identify 7,000 or more in a single step. No other lab in the world has been able to do that."

Marshall is a co-inventor of a technique that turns an analytical tool introduced in the 1930s into what he says is the world's most powerful method for detecting what kinds of compounds lie hidden in complex mixtures.

His lab, based at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, specializes in developing the power of an analytical technique called ion cyclotron resonance mass spectroscopy, or ICR. Invented in the mid-1930s, the technique bombards gaseous forms of compounds trapped in a magnetic field with radio signals that act as electronic probes to identify them.

What makes Marshall's lab unique is its access to large magnets, plus a sophisticated array of front-end technology that he and his colleagues have developed since 1993 when he began his research at FSU.

"Almost every shipment of crude oil to this country has a different mixture of compounds," said Marshall. "Our technique is the best way, and possibly the only way, for oil companies to determine precisely what they have. Only then can they develop the best methods for removing sulfur and other pollutants."