What are best friends for? Insights from 10 million friendships

Why do people have best friends? Why do we think of some individuals as “better” friends than other individuals? Why rank friends at all? And what is so special about the apex of the ranking, our “best” friend?

Peter DeScioli, a Kay Fellow at Brandeis University, and colleagues recently shed light on these questions by collecting a dataset of over 10 million people’s friendship decisions from the MySpace social network. The results support the “alliance hypothesis” which is based on the idea that people depend on their friends in conflicts. The findings were recently published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

MySpace has a feature that allows users to rank their “Top Friends,” providing a unique data source for testing how well different variables explain people’s rankings of friends. The alliance hypothesis predicts that people will feel closest to friends who rank them higher than others. Here’s why: If you need your friend to take your side in an argument, then they will have to side against someone else—which is unlikely if they are better friends with your adversary. The fewer people ranked above you, the more you can rely on your friend to take your side. According to the theory, people unconsciously track this strategic information and it shapes how we feel about our friends.

It turns out that the importance of friend rank was highly significant. Comparing first- and second-ranked friends, 69% chose for first-rank the individual who ranked them better. This was a considerably larger effect than the next best predictor, geographic proximity. The effects of sex, age, and popularity were small by comparison. Moreover, friend rank increased in strength when the analysis was extended to first- versus third- through eighth-ranked friends. In short, we now have 10 million more reasons to wonder if human friendship might be more strategic than it seems.

Other comment:

http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-02-friendships-built-alliances.html

http://www.epjournal.net/blog/2011/02/who-is-your-best-friend%E2%80%99s-best-friend/

Thomas, Epstein to Collaborate with Discovery Museums on Dreyfus Foundation Grant

The Discovery Museums (Acton, MA), in collaboration with Professors Christine Thomas and Irv Epstein (Brandeis chemistry department) and Brandeis’s American Chemical Society Student Affiliates Chapter have received funding from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation to develop and implement a project called Reaction Station: Adventures for Young Chemists.

Pilot tests of a prototype Reaction Box with students

The project aims to enhance and promote hands-on chemistry experiences for youth in schools and museums. Implementation of the project involves first designing “Reaction Stations,” comprised of large plastic boxes with holes cut out for gloved hand access, and then carrying out educational and experiential programming for children using these Reaction Stations. As children are often enticed by messy, smelly, or otherwise highly-reactive experiments, these portable Reaction Stations (similar in concept to gloveboxes used by members of Professor Thomas’s Lab) will provide a safe way for children to engage in experiments that are often avoided in school or museum settings due to their messy nature.

Denise LeBlanc, Director of Learning Experiences at The Discovery Museums (and also a former research scientist in the Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center on campus), anticipates much success from the Reaction Stations. LeBlanc and Thomas will devise various experiments for children to carry out. Possibilities include: identifying a mystery substance as part of a “crime scene,” testing the pH of common household items, exploring reactivity of everyday chemicals that, at first glance, seem inert, and other experiments that introduce children to topics of polymers, chromatography, phase changes, etc.

Undergraduate students in the American Chemical Society Student Affiliate Chapter will work with the children as model scientists and helpers. Throughout the duration of the year, undergrads from the chemistry department will partake in demonstrations and lessons at the museum in Acton, MA, as well as offsite through various after-school programs. Beyond conducting demonstrations in a museum or school setting only, the Reaction Station will be a teaching tool that educators can bring to their own classrooms or other venues to perpetuate their students’ engagement in chemistry and hands-on research. Says Thomas, “Making research understandable and accessible to children at a young age is pivotal in the development of new generations of chemists.”

The Reaction Station: Adventures for Young Chemists proposal was one of 19 grants awarded this year. Other recipients include universities and museum/science outreach organizations who intend to advance the chemical sciences through innovative projects.

An alternative to scuba diving

Many promising medicinal agents (anti-cancer, anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal) have been discovered among the diverse molecules produced by marine organisms. However, scuba-diving to harvest sponges and algae is not usually a practical way of obtaining usable quantities of these compounds, especially if they are present only in trace quantities in the source organisms.

A recently published paper in Organic Letters from the laboratory of Assistant Professor of Chemistry Isaac Krauss is the first to present a synthetic laboratory approach to the preparation of the bromophycolides, originally isolated from Callophycus Serratus, a red algae which was collected off the coast of Fiji. Although these compounds were shown to posses anti-tumour, anti-HIV and anti-malarial properties, algae collected in a second expedition to Fiji apparently contained none of the natural product (hence the desirability of a laboratory synthesis). The bromophycolides are a structurally unique family of natural products containing brominated asymmetric carbon centers and large 19-membered rings. This paper illustrates the preparation of the bromophycolide A and D ring system in high enantiomeric purity via a short (9-step) synthetic sequence.

Susan Band Horwitz (PhD ’63) receives AACR Lifetime Achievement Award

Susan Band Horwitz, Ph.D., will receive the Eighth AACR Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research. Horwitz is being recognized for pioneering research in the mechanism of the anticancer drug Taxol and for contributions to the understanding of how this microtubule-stabilizing drug arrests cell division, which eventually leads to cell death, especially of cancer cells.

Horwitz received a bachelor’s from Bryn Mawr, then came to Brandeis to do her graduate studies. According to a profile in PNAS by Tinsley H. Davis,

“At that time, there were few graduate schools that were very receptive to women,” [Horowitz] recalls. “Women were not very prominent on the faculty or in the student body.” One university stood out from the others, however. Brandeis University (Waltham, MA) had just started its graduate program in biochemistry. “Brandeis was a new and exciting place, and the people there wanted it to succeed,” says Horwitz, “yet it also had a relaxed atmosphere that was really perfect for me.”

Once at Brandeis, Horwitz worked with Nathan Kaplan, chairman of the newly formed Biochemistry Department. Her Ph.D. dissertation (1963) involved bacterial metabolism of sugar alcohols.

While juggling raising children and doing part-time postdoctoral research (some things haven’t changed so much over the years!), Horwitz became interested in pharmacology and anticancer agents. She joined the faculty at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1970, where she has remained since, currently serving as the Rose C. Falkenstein Professor of Cancer Research and co-chair of the department of molecular pharmacology.

Horwitz’s academic career has been vastly productive, in terms of research, publications and awards, but perhaps more significantly in terms of her research’s impact on millions of cancer patients worldwide. Her current research focuses on new natural products with similar mechanism to Taxol, looking for ways to enhance therapeutic value and to avoid drug resistance.

The AACR Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research was established in 2004 to honor an individual who has made significant fundamental contributions to cancer research, either through a single scientific discovery or a body of work. These contributions, whether they have been in research, leadership or mentorship, must have had a lasting impact on the cancer field and must have demonstrated a lifetime commitment to progress against cancer. Horwitz will receive the award at the Opening Ceremony of the AACR 102nd Annual Meeting.

Thomas named 2011 Sloan Research Fellow

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Christine Thomas has been named a 2011 Sloan Research Fellow. These two-year fellowships are awarded to early-career scientists in recognition of distinguished performance and a unique potential to make substantial contributions to their field. Research in the Thomas laboratory focuses on the design and synthesis of new transition metal complexes to examine the fundamental interactions between different components of bifunctional catalysts with the ultimate goal of uncovering new transition-metal catalyzed bond activation processes related to renewable energy. Since starting in the Chemistry department at Brandeis in 2008, Thomas and coworkers have developed a series of bimetallic catalysts that utilize metal-metal interactions to attenuate redox potentials and promote the activation of small molecules such as hydrogen, alkyl halides, and carbon dioxide.

The Thomas lab has an energetic and talented team of researchers

Arne Ekstrom ’96, PhD ’04 and Mikhail Ershov MA ’00 were also named as 2011 Sloan Research Fellows. Ekstrom received a B.A. in Biology and Psychology from Brandeis, and after getting an M.S. at U. Arizona, returned and completed a Ph.D. in Neuroscience here in 2004, working with Michael Kahana. After a postdoc at UCLA, Arne took a position as an Assistant Professor in the Center for Neuroscience at U. California, Davis. His lab studies spatial memory using EEG and fMRI techniques. Ershov came to Brandeis from Moscow State Univ. and received an MA in Math in 2000 bofore going on to Ph.D. work at Yale and a faculty position at U. Virginia. Ershov is being recognized for research contributions to various aspects of group theory.

How much torque is on my elbow?

A recent article in l. Biomech. Eng. by Davide Piovesan, a former post-doctoral fellow in Brandeis’ Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Laboratory, with Alberto Pierobon, a staff engineer, and Paul DiZio and James Lackner, the laboratory’s directors has advanced the empirical and analytic tools used to quantify human arm segment inertias.  The new methodology enables studies of the neuromotor control of naturalistic reaching movements unfettered by heretofore necessary laboratory constraints, in healthy and clinical populations,

Arm segment inertias are key parameters of inverse dynamics equations which compute movement kinetics (joint torques and muscle forces) from measurements of movement kinematics.  Existing methods for estimating arm segment parameters did not provide sufficient resolution for calculation of a class of joint torques called interaction torques.  During natural reaching, interaction torques are generated by an arm segment’s motion relative to other moving segments, in addition to  normal inertial torques which are due to motion relative to fixed space.  The technical solution provided in this paper involves statistical techniques for partitioning variance in inertial estimates due to task-related (arm angular acceleration) and extraneous factors (different estimation techniques and subject body shape variations) and eliminating the extraneous sources.

The Graybiel Lab researchers have previously shown that current neuromotor models of muscle activation fail to account for movement errors that occur when large interaction torques are experimentally induced, and the new methods will enable development of better experiments and models.

Multi-body representation of the torso and arm during planar reaching.  Joint torques (τ) and forces (θ) of this multi-link sysytem can be computed knowing the motions and the inertial properties (mass, center of mass, and moment of inertia) of each segment.  The torso frame of reference is at the shoulder (S), and each other segment’s reference frame (x‑y) is fixed at its center of mass.  The environmental frame of reference (E) is shown at the upper left.

Undergraduate research fellowship opportunities

Meredith Monaghan, Director of Academic Fellowships, writes:

I am happy to announce the latest competition for two sources of funding designed to support undergraduate research at Brandeis University. Applications for both the Schiff Undergraduate Fellows Program and the Undergraduate Research Program are due in March; specific details for each are below. For your reference, I have also attached to this email the info sheets/applications for each.

Schiff Fellows work closely with a Faculty Mentor on a year-long research or pedagogical project; Fellows earn $2000 and their Faculty Mentors receive $500. Current and past Schiff Fellows describe this as an excellent opportunity to pursue independent research in collaboration with a caring and knowledgeable expert in their field. In past years, faculty members have been particularly helpful in identifying excellent candidates for the Schiff Fellowship, and have often approached a student directly with an idea for a project. Applications for academic year 2011-2012 are available in Academic Services (Usdan 130) or by emailing Meredith Monaghan. The submission deadline is 5pm on Monday, March 7, 2011.

This cycle of the Undergraduate Research Program competition is for summer 2011 grants. This award is open to students in all disciplines, and funds can be used to pay for research materials, travel to conferences, and other research-related expenses. Students need a recommendation from a faculty mentor, but the role of the faculty member is less hands-on for the URP than for the Schiff Fellowship Program. Applications are available in Academic Services (Usdan 130) or by emailing Meredith Monaghan. The submission deadline is 5pm on Wednesday, March 16, 2011.

For information about other fellowship opportunities, see the Academic Services website.

Last year’s winners, the 2010-2011 Schiff Fellows, are:

  • BENJAMIN G. COOPER ’11, Chemistry & Biology (with Prof. Christine Thomas) — “Catalyst Design for Environmentally-Friendly Production of Fuels”
  • USMAN HAMEEDI ’12, Biology & HSSP (with Prof. Bruce Foxman) — “Temperature Sensitive Ferrocene Complexes”
  • JUNE ALLISON HE ’11, Psychology (with Prof. Nicolas Rohleder) — “Investigating the Link Between Subjective Conceptions of Stress and Health and Age-Related Declines in Cognitive Functioning”
  • MAYA KOENIG ’11, IIM Medical Anthropology (with Prof. Sarah Lamb) — “Bringing Medical Anthropology to Brandeis / Using CAM to Conceptualize Health”
  • ALEXANDRA KRISS ’11, HSSP (with Prof. Sara Shostak) — “College-Aged Women & Contraceptives: What Does Advertising Have To Do With It?”
  • ALEXANDRU PAPIU ’12, Mathematics (with Prof. Bong Lian) — “Structural Properties of a Certain Kind of Semigroup”
  • Géraldine Rothschild ’12, Economics & French (with Prof. Edward Kaplan) — “Jewish Identities in France During 1945”
  • MARTHA SOLOMON ’11, Biology (with Prof. Lawrence Wangh) — “Barrett’s Adenocarcinoma and its Effects on Mitochondrial DNA”
  • ILANA SPECTOR ’11, Economics & Philosophy (with Prof. Marion Smiley) — “The Meaning of Life: Revealing Individual Perspectives Behind Broader Philosophical Notions”
  • JOSEPH POLEX WOLF ’11, Neuroscience & HSSP (with Prof. Angela Gutchess) — “Cognition at the Cross-Roads: Bicultural Cognitive Processing in Turkish Individuals”

3-D Turing pattern formation in a chemical reaction system

In a report in this week’s issue of Science, Brandeis professor Irving Epstein, senior research associate Vladimir Vanag and postdoc Tamas Bansagi use tomographic methods, like those employed in a medical CAT scan, but using visible light in this case, to obtain the first three-dimensional images of Turing patterns. These patterns have been proposed as a mechanism for morphogenesis in living systems, perhaps offering an explanation for phenomena like “how the leopard gets its spots” or skeletal structure in developing limbs. .

Commentary: Wired Science

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