BEACON Researchers at Work: Perspectives on Evolutionary Medicine and Public Health

MSU LBC Students Attend Inaugural Meeting of the International Society for Evolutionary Medicine and Public Health

Tempe, AZ, March 19-21, 2015

On Thursday March 19, 2015, six MSU Lyman Briggs College students, accompanied by Dr. Jim Smith (LBC Biology), traveled to Tempe, Arizona to attend the inaugural meeting of the International Society for Evolutionary Medicine and Public Health (EMPH). The meeting, held at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel, brought together nearly 200 research scientists and physicians committed to the idea that evolutionary thinking can help us better understand human health and disease. 

The trip was made possible for our students by generous support from the Lyman Briggs College, the MSU Honors College, and the NSF-funded BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action.

One highlight of the trip was our encounter with LBC alumna Dr. Julie Horvath (Lyman Briggs Zoology, 1996), who is currently Research Associate Professor of Biology at North Carolina Central University and Director of the Genomics & Microbiology Research Laboratory at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

As a part of the trip, each student was asked to write a “blog post” in the form of a description of his/her journey from both an intellectual and experiential standpoint. What follows below is what each student wrote.

Our group in front of the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel. From left to right: Ryan Owen, Justin Jabara, Collin Stapleton-Reinhold, Jim Smith, Julie Horvath, Andrew Benner, Lauren Mamaril, and James Conwell.

Our group in front of the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel. From left to right: Ryan Owen, Justin Jabara, Collin Stapleton-Reinhold, Jim Smith, Julie Horvath, Andrew Benner, Lauren Mamaril, and James Conwell.

Andrew Benner

The presentation that moved me the most was by Dr. Erida Gjini’s, entitled “Integrating antimicrobial therapy with host immunity to fight resistant infections: classical vs. adaptive treatment.” Dr. Gjini, a post-doctoral researcher at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia in Portugal, combined clinical, experimental, genetic, and epidemiological strategies to formulate a mathematical model to analyze and calculate optimum levels of antibiotic treatment. The adaptive treatment model analyzes an array of variables, including symptom threshold, proper dosage, timing, and duration of treatment. The incredible finding was that synergistic clearance by drug and host immunity optimizes treatment outcomes. That means that rather than using a massive amount of antibiotics, a more moderate treatment allows the human body to intertwine its immunological functions with the antibiotic, working together to produce a more successful, unified treatment. Dr. Gjini’s research and mathematical model were eye opening for me with respect to analyzing and predicting the optimal level of antibiotic dosage, treatment timing, and host immune response.

The social aspect of our attendance at the meetings was equally rewarding. Although demanding and extremely dense in scientific jargon, the bits and pieces of understanding proved to be an irreplaceable exposure to evolutionary medicine and professional research in general. An aspect of the trip that I did not anticipate was my interaction with my classmates, as well as the professionals at the conference. I was able to gain insight on the lives of my classmates and the researchers that were present, aside from just an academic understanding. Although we still had conversations about the lectures we were attending and relative coursework/research interests, it was an experience in itself getting to know my peers outside of the confines of the classroom.

James Conwell

While there were a number of fascinating presentations at the Evolutionary Medicine Conference, one really stood out for me. Mr. Casey Roulette, a Ph. D. candidate at Washington State University, gave a presentation on the effect of plant drug use in humans, and its relationship with human parasites. In his research, he was able to follow a group of people in the Central African Republic to test the relationship between the number of gut parasites that they had and their drug use. His research indicated that those that were using tobacco or marijuana had lower amounts of gut parasites compared to those in the population who did not use those drugs. I later spoke with Mr. Roulette about his research, and we discussed drug use in our culture, and the possibility of drug users having allergies, as there may be a link between IgE and drug use. It was a fascinating concept for me to think about, and I am now writing my senior research paper on the relationship between allergies and drug use. 

While the conference itself was fantastic, one of the neater points was having the opportunity to connect with my classmates who attended, as well as meet other professionals in the field, and get to know them personally. The directors of the conference did an excellent job of getting everyone out in the beautiful Arizona sunshine, and encouraging others to meet, and to learn a bit about them. One great opportunity to meet others was how all of the meals at the conference were outside, in a break from the professional setting, and the options for eating were endless. Beyond this, a man named Baba Brinkman rapped about Evolutionary Medicine, and it was a fun way to think about the content of the conference. Everybody laughed, and had a great time at his show.

Justin Jabara

During the Evolutionary Medicine conference there were many interesting presentations but one was of particular interest to me. Dr. Charles Nunn from Duke University gave a presentation on the evolution of sleep that focused on how humans compare to other great apes. One of the conclusions of the study was that of the great apes (humans included) we sleep the least out of any ape. In contrast to this reduced sleep time, we spend more time in REM sleep than any other great ape. This is important because sleep plays such a critical role in health and happiness. For example, when a patient suffering from depression begins pharmaceutical antidepressant therapy, REM sleep greatly decreases. This is because antidepressants target monoamines, which mediate sleep cycles. Applying findings of evolutionary medicine to medical problems such as this one can lead to novel ways of thinking about diseases and could lead to progress in their medical treatments.

We had a blast in Arizona. After the conference was over we found the hotel pool and soaked in the sun. It was awesome having 90°F weather in March. We also made friends with people at the conference. One person we met was Will from Newcastle University, who was in his final year of medical school. We ended up spending quite a bit of time with him and became friends. We even travelled via Uber to an awesome desert botanical garden a few miles north of Tempe. Overall, the trip to Arizona was a smashing experience!

Lauren Mamaril

My experience at the International Society for Evolution, Medicine & Public Health meeting in Tempe, AZ was a first of its kind for me. One of the presentations I found most interesting included an evolutionary standpoint of natural birth and Caesarian section, presented by Dr. Wenda Trevathan from New Mexico State University. Dr. Trevathan examined excessive C-section rates in various countries, and suggested that relationships exist between the rise in C-section and the rise in HIV, obesity, diabe
tes, and maternal age. Also, with elective C-section, she brought to light that an infant does not receive the same gut microbiome from its mother compared to babies born by vaginal birth. Dr. Trevathan also examined tocophobia (the fear of vaginal delivery) and suggested that the anxiety and pain experienced during childbirth may be evolutionarily advantageous. She implied that providing emotional support through the birth experience may be healthier than elective C-section.

The Mission Palms at Tempe conference center was a beautiful facility featuring a courtyard and numerous orange trees, and only contributed even more positively to the opportunity. I had the unique opportunity to meet with many of the pioneers of this field, including Dr. Randolph Nesse, President of the International Society for Evolutionary Medicine and Public Health. Having this experience with my fellow classmates allowed me to get to know them better compared to just being in a classroom setting. It was cool to see what their interests in medicine are, what makes them click, and which particular presentations struck them the most in comparison to my own interests.

Ryan Owen

One of the more intriguing talks I attended was by Dr. Ruslan Medzhitov, Professor of Immunobiology at Yale University. He described two types of mechanisms that contribute to a healthy state: maintenance mechanisms and curing mechanisms. The former generally operate until they are not needed anymore, and this makes sense. Our lifespan has been defined by extrinsic mortality factors for our entire ancestral history, and therefore these maintenance programs have evolved accordingly. However, modern medicine has allowed humans to live far past ages that our bodies are evolved to, and these mechanisms are not adequately evolved to deal with the health consequences. We have to approach curing disease from an evolutionary perspective, understanding what is causing the disease state: is it a maintenance malfunction or a curing malfunction? Our bodies have evolved natural solutions to curing malfunctions that can be utilized by finding the right “button” and pushing it (statins, beta-blockers, etc.). If the disease does not have a defense that has naturally evolved (i.e., cancer), then we need to stop looking for curing mechanisms and start searching for ways to upregulate our maintenance mechanisms.

 The experiential highlight for me was being able to see Arizona for the first time. The trip was a great balance of academia and leisure, and it allowed for some exploration around a state I had never seen before. The learning went beyond the conference as I was able to take in a lot about the culture and the people through talking to locals, indulging in the cuisine, exploring the Desert Botanical Gardens, and hiking the incredible land formations.

Collin Stapleton-Reinhold

The one presentation that I enjoyed the most was by Dr. Stefan Ruhl from the University at Buffalo. What stood out about his presentation was that he wasn’t your normal researcher. He was a dentist and his team was looking at the different kinds of proteins found in saliva in humans, chimps and gorillas. Even though they found many proteins that were linked in the same way throughout all three species, the interesting thing was they found multiple proteins that were different enough to be looked into further. They also found that human saliva is a lot more watery than chimp or gorilla saliva, which they reasoned might cause those species to be able to eat a more cellulose dense diet. In all, they found many different proteins that were different among all three species, which could indicate that saliva is a hot bed for evolution and that we should do more research in the field to see if those changes can be linked to any other evolutionary changes that we many have with our closest non-human relatives.         

I loved how the directors of the conference had all of our meals outside and the spread was out of this world. You could fill up a plate and still not have gotten everything that they offered. If that wasn’t enough, after everything was over on Friday night, Baba Brinkman rapped about evolutionary medicine. It was spot on. To make things even more enjoyable, he had dancers come up for one of his songs and dance in front of everyone there for his show. After multiple shoves and nagging from my fellow Briggsies, I became one of the dancers and it is a memory I will never forget. 

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