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Featured Researchers: This Week in Science

We talk a lot about science and research, but we don’t spend enough time talking about the people who actually do the research. In case you haven’t followed our previous feature, here is where we share some of the most interesting studies from the week, and share a bit of information about the scientists who made them.

Scientists use fMRI technique to study the brain of novice and experienced writers as they write

Martin Lotze University of Greiftswald

Scientific Paper
Featured Researcher: Martin Lotze
University of Greifswald
Research Interests: Neuroscience, Emotion, Stroke rehabilitation, Motor Learning, TMS, and Functional Imaging. Since 2001, he has published 87 articles and is one of the most active neuroscientists in the field.

Saturn’s moon Titan may be older than Saturn itself

Kathleen Mandt NASA.

Scientific Paper
Featured Researcher: Kathleen Mandt
Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio
Research Interests: She has nearly a decade of experience in planetary research, six years of which were spent working on NASA-funded instrument teams. She has used numerical modeling to study atmospheric dynamics and photochemistry, with a special focus on isotopic evolution of atmospheres, and her career path was quite different from what we usually see.

“Working in planetary science is an opportunity to go beyond a single discipline and immerse oneself in a range of scientific studies without limits!”

Fish do feel and acknowledge pain. They also multi task and have have cultural traditions

Culum Brown Macquarie University.

Scientific Paper
Featured Researcher: Culum Brown
Macquarie University
Research Interests:  He is mainly interested in Behavioural Ecology and in particular predator avoidance behaviour, learning and memory in freshwater fishes. He has conducted comparative research on the behavioural ecology of predator avoidance in Austalian freshwater fishes (Uni. Queensland) as well as examining social learning in guppies and salmon. He has been associated with several Universities in the UK, such as Cambridge and Edinburgh. He also has interests in applied research in conservation biology and fisheries management.

X-rays image atoms during chemical reactions for the first time

makoto fujita university of tokyo

Scientific Paper
Featured Researcher: Makoto Fujita
University of Tokyo
Research Interests: His most notable papers focus on coordonation polymers, self-assembling molecular systems utilizing transition metals and the chemistry of isolated nano-space. His main goal is translating natural weak interactions into design principle for artificial molecular assemblies by showing the self-assembly of well-designed molecules into functional molecular systems.

Invasive ant has bear trap-like jaw which can propel it through the air

D. Magdalena Sorder ants

Scientific Paper
Featured Researcher: D. Magdalena Sorger
North Carolina State University
Research Interests: Ants! She initially graduated from the University of Economics and Business Administration in Vienna, Austria, and even took an MSc in International Business Administration, before she fell in love with biology. Her story is quite an inspiration for everybody to follow their dream – her dream is now following a PhD in entomology, focusing on ants.

Scientists develop an “unfeelability cloak”

Tiemo Bückmann Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

Scientific Paper
Featured Researcher: Tiemo Bückmann
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
Research Interests: His main research focus is on metamaterials and the exciting optical and acoustical properties which can be obtained through them. He has published a paper on invisibility cloaking in a diffusive light scattering medium, and of course, on the “unfeelability cloak”.

Strict diet doubles lifespan of worms

David R. Sherwood Duke University

Scientific Paper
Featured Researcher: David R. Sherwood
Duke University
Research Interests: His research is directed at elucidating mechanisms underlying morphogenetic processes in development. His lab primarily uses the model system C. elegans in research, and combines powerful genetic and systems biology approaches with live-cell imaging to address three main topics: Tissue Remodeling and Connection, Stem Cell-Niche Interactions and Nutritional Regulation of Late Larval Development.

Pesticides threaten bees, birds and worms alike

Scientific Paper: Worldwide Integrated Assessment.
Featured Researcher: Jean-Marc Bonmatin 
National Centre for Scientific Research (France)
Research Interests: I couldn’t find much info about mister Bonmatin outside for his published papers. Judging by those, his main research interest is honeybees, and in particular elements which have a negative impact on honeybees – be it pesticides (neocotinoids) or parasites.


Neuroscientists use fMRI scanners to track the brain of experienced and novice writers as they write fiction

Using fMRI machines to peer into the brains of artists is not really a new idea, we’ve even done it to animals as well, so I was quite surprised to see that no one used them to analyze writers as they go through their creative process. But this is exactly what German researchers did now – analyzing not only experienced, but also novice writers – and the results are really interesting.

Setting up the study

Martin Lotze of the University of Greifswald and his team used an fMRI to track the brain activity of writers as they lay down to create a fictional story. The logistical challenge of this study was quite significant. Dr. Lotze wanted to have writers stand down and type their story, but you can’t bring a keyboard into the room, because the immense magnetic field from the fMRI would just hurl it through the room.

So they developed a custom built desk clipping a piece of paper to a wedge-shaped block as the subjects reclined. As they scribbled on the page, a system of mirrors let scientists see what they were writing, while the writers’ heads were wrapped inside the scanner.

They first established a base line, having writers copy some text down. Then, they gave them a few lines from a short story, asking them to creatively continue it; writers brainstormed for a minute, and then spent two minutes writing down their thoughts. They first tested out novice writers, and then experienced writers.

Watching the brain work

The first thing researchers noted was the increased activity in the vision-processing regions during the creative brainstorm. This probably means that writers were actually visualizing the scenes before they were writing them. But when they started to actually write, the visual activity went down, and other areas activated instead – the hippocampus was retrieving memories, analyzing which factual information it could use in the story. Also, one region near the front of the brain, known to be crucial for holding several pieces of information in mind at once, became active as well. Juggling with characters and idea probably puts a special emphasis on it.

But what happens when you put experienced writers in the same situation? Their brains exhibit quite a different behaviour in several aspects. During the creative process, their brains also highlighted the vision-processing areas, but they showed more activity in regions involved in speech.

“I think both groups are using different strategies,” Dr. Lotze said. It’s possible that the novices are watching their stories like a film inside their heads, while the writers are narrating it with an inner voice.

When they actually started writing, another interesting difference emerged. Expert writers showed increased activity in the caudate nucleus – an area that plays an essential role when it comes to a skill involving practice. When you are learning a new skill, like say riding a bycicle or playing a musical instrument, we use a lot of conscious effort trying to get the hang of it. But as we become more and more familiar, we consciously think less about it, and our brain just knows how to do it – that’s the caudate nucleusl. For example, in an experienced chess player, the caudate nucleus would be very, very active – but for someone who’s just learning the game, the area would remain quiet. The same thing happened to writers.

“I was really happy to see this,” said Ronald T. Kellogg, a psychologist who studies writing at Saint Louis University. “You don’t want to see this as an analog to what James Joyce was doing in Dublin. But to see that they were able to get clean results with this, I think that’s a major step right there.”

Messy results

But the results, as interesting as they are, still don’t paint a clear picture. Researchers showed that writing is not fundamentally different from other creative activities, and they also highlighted some differences between regular people and experienced writers when it comes to writing – something which was more or less expected. However, more localized and specific studies are needed in order to understand exactly how creativity works in writing.

Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, was skeptical that the experiments could provide a clear picture of creativity.

“It’s a messy comparison,” he said.

That’s not necessarily a minus on behalf of the study, but is rather owed to the complexity of the creative process.

“Creativity is a perversely difficult thing to study,” he said.