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October 16, 2013

In Research

Legacy of slavery still fuels anti-black attitudes in the Deep South

Although slavery was abolished 150 years ago, its political legacy is alive and well, according to researchers who performed a new county-by-county analysis of census data and opinion polls of more than 39,000 southern whites.

The team of political scientists found that white Southerners who live today in areas where slavery and the plantation economy dominated, are much more likely to express more negative attitudes toward blacks than their fellow Southerners who live in nearby areas that had few slaves. Residents of these former slavery strongholds are also more likely to identify as Republican and to express opposition to race-related policies such as affirmative action.

Conducted by Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen—all assistant professors of political science—the research is believed to be the first to demonstrate quantitatively the lasting effects of slavery on contemporary political attitudes in the American South. The findings hold even when other dynamics often associated with racial animosity are factored in, such as present-day concentrations of African Americans in an area, or whether an area is urban or rural. “

Slavery does not explain all forms of current-day racism,” says Acharya. “But the data clearly demonstrates that the legacy of the plantation economy and its reliance on the forced labor of African Americans continues to exacerbate racial bias in the Deep South.”

The findings were reported in a working paper that was presented for the first time at the Politics of Race, Immigration, and Ethnicity Consortium at the University of California at Riverside on Sept. 27.


Scientists find possible antidote to mental fog from breast cancer drug

A team from the Medical Center has shown scientifically what many women report anecdotally: that the breast cancer drug tamoxifen is toxic to cells of the brain and central nervous system, producing mental fogginess similar to “chemo brain.”

In the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers also report they’ve discovered an existing drug compound that appears to counteract or rescue brain cells from the adverse effects of the breast cancer drug.

Corresponding author Mark Noble, professor of biomedical genetics and director of the University’s Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Institute, says it’s exciting to potentially be able to prevent a toxic reaction to one of the oldest and most widely used breast cancer medications on the market. Although tamoxifen is more easily tolerated compared to most cancer treatments, it produces troubling side effects in a subset of the large number of people who take it.

The research is the result of two separate but related projects from Noble’s lab. One investigates the science underlying a condition known as “chemo brain,” and another is looking at how to exploit tamoxifen’s attributes for use in other types of cancer besides early-stage, less-aggressive breast cancer.


Greenland snowpack shows a significant reduction in atmospheric carbon monoxide

A first-ever study of air trapped in the deep snowpack of Greenland shows that atmospheric levels of carbon monoxide (CO) in the 1950s were actually slightly higher than the levels measured today. The finding is surprising because current computer models predict much higher CO concentrations over Greenland today than in 1950.

In a paper published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Vasilii Petrenko, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences, concludes that CO levels rose slightly from 1950 until the 1970s, then declined strongly to present-day values.

“The CO decline coincides with improvements in combustion technology, in particular the introduction of catalytic converters in automobiles,” says Petrenko. “CO emissions were declining even as fossil fuel use was increasing.”

Carbon monoxide, a byproduct of combustion that can be deadly in high concentrations, exists in the atmosphere at very low levels. While not a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide, it plays an important role in atmospheric chemistry and an indirect role in global warming.


Nearby double star Fomalhaut is actually a triple

photo showing stars

The nearby star system Fomalhaut— of special interest for its unusual exoplanet and dusty debris disk—has been discovered to be not just a double star, as astronomers had thought, but one of the widest triple stars known.

In a paper accepted for publication in the Astronomical Journal, researchers show that a previously known smaller star in its vicinity is also part of the Fomalhaut system.

Eric Mamajek, associate professor of physics and astronomy, and his collaborators found the triple nature of the star system through a bit of detective work. “I noticed this third star a couple of years ago when I was plotting the motions of stars in the vicinity of Fomalhaut for another study,” Mamajek says. “However I needed to collect more data and gather a team of coauthors with different observations to test whether the star’s properties are consistent with being a third member of the Fomalhaut system.”

Through careful analysis, the researchers were able to measure the distance and speed of the third star. They concluded that the star, until recently known as LP 876-10, is part of the Fomalhaut system, making it Fomalhaut C.


Lighting up can bring you down in colorectal surgery

Infection, pneumonia, blood clots, and kidney failure are all possible complications after any major surgery. A Medical Center study shows that smoking boosts the risk of complications following some of the most common colorectal procedures, including surgery for colon cancer, diverticulitis, or inflammatory bowel disease. Lighting up also increases a patient’s risk of death after surgery compared with patients who have never smoked.

The study, published in the Annals of Surgery, is unusual because it focuses on elective, or nonemergency, surgeries.

“Elective surgeries are planned, so there’s a built-in window of opportunity for patients to stop smoking beforehand,” says lead author Fergal Fleming, assistant professor in the Department of Surgery. “We know that stopping smoking even as little as six weeks before a procedure can reduce the risk of complications.”

Accounting for patient age, body mass index, alcohol use, and other health conditions, the team’s analysis showed that current smokers still had an estimated 30 percent increased risk of dying or developing complications following colorectal surgery compared with never-smokers. Current smokers, who were younger than never-smokers and ex-smokers, had the highest rates of pneumonia and infection, were more likely to return to the operating room, and had much longer hospital stays after surgery. Researchers also observed that patients with long histories of smoking were at even greater risk.

Building on this research, Fleming plans to study how doctors can better partner with patients to encourage them to quit smoking before planned surgeries.


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