News and Analysis



Biological researchers have published the first draft of the Tree of Life, which links the evolutionary histories of close to 2.3 million named species of microbes, plants, and animals, according to a University release.

GW is one of 11 institutions to contribute to the new project, which was led by Karen Cranston, a research scientist at Duke University. It is the first complete compilation of all species, and will include data from smaller and previously published trees of life. It is now available online to browse and download.

The project will not be “static,” but rather “will develop tools for scientists to update and revise the tree as new data come in,” according to the project’s website website. The researchers say this will most likely be an important attribute, considering that when researchers started the project three years ago, there were only 1.8 million species recognized.

Keith Crandall, director of the Computational Biology Institute, brought a $350,000 grant to assemble the tree with him to GW in 2012. He said in the University release that compacting the pieces of evolutionary history into one database would be essential to further biological research.

“Now, we have a framework to take advantage of previously splintered knowledge joined through the OpenTree project into a single Tree of Life,” Crandall said in the article.

Christopher Owen, a post-doctoral scientist at GW also working in the Computational Biology Institute, was also a co-author of the draft.

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Chemistry professor Akos Vertes developed a new technology called the REDIchip, which he has licensed to Protea Biosciences Group. Hatchet File Photo by Lydia Francis | Hatchet Staff Photographer

Chemistry professor Akos Vertes developed a new technology called the REDIchip, which he has licensed to Protea Biosciences Group. Hatchet File Photo by Lydia Francis | Hatchet Staff Photographer

Updated: June 2, 2015 at 4:53 p.m.

One GW faculty member is credited with turning millions of dollars into a coveted piece of technology.

Akos Vertes, a professor of chemistry, has been researching at GW for more than 23 years and holds several patents. His latest project, the REDIchip, was funded with grants from the Department of Energy and a $14 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The chip examines small molecules in biofluids for dangerous materials. Protea Biosciences Group, based in West Virginia, licenses the technology from Vertes.

Vertes spoke with The Hatchet about his latest piece of technology, including how he created the REDIchip. This interview has been edited for length.

Hatchet: Tell me a little about your new technology.

Vertes: The idea is that in the analysis of very small amounts of biological material of environmental samples, there’s a great need to develop new techniques to lower and lower amounts of material that can be analyzed. So in order to produce ions, which is the basis of detections, we use a laser. And this is very common. People use lasers to produce ions from samples. Most of samples do not interact with the laser light — they just pass the light through.

So what we developed is a nanostructure made out of silicon using technologies that I used in microelectronics, the methods people use to manufacture computer chips. We used the same type of technology to develop a platform that does not require any external material so the sample remains pristine and unaltered. And as a result, we are able to detect a lot more of the molecules that are in the sample, a larger variety of the molecules, at much lower concentrations compared to the existing techniques. So this is in a nutshell what makes this new technology so attractive.

Hatchet: How will it be used in the field? When will a company need this technology?

Vertes: We have explored the use of this in detecting trace amounts of illicit drugs during samples for example, but practically anything that’s currently being analyzed in the liquid form can be analyzed by using with this technique. In addition to analyzing biofluids and other fluid samples, we’ve also explored using these platforms for chemical imaging. So we can take a tissue section, brain tissues or kidney tissues — and we have already tried this with mouse brain and mouse kidney — and we can put this section down on the surface of this microchip and then use the laser to interrogate the structure point by point just like forming pixels. From one experiment, we can form 100 to 200 different images and learn the distribution of different chemicals in in the brain, or in the kidney or any other organ we are sectioning.

Hatchet: How long have you been working on this project?

Vertes: Maybe I can give you a broader perspective. [Protea] has also licensed and commercialized another technology from my lab. We started working on both of these technologies back in 2006, 2007. So approximately by the time the [first] technology was commercialized, the [REDIchip] was about ready to be commercialized. We worked out many of the kinks, improving ion yields, making stable structures, making sure they don’t degrade over time, and so on. So then they licensed this one and started to commercialized it.

Hatchet: How did you go about licensing it to Protea labs?

Vertes: They showed up at my doorstep. The president of the company, Steve Turner, one day knocked on my door, and he said they were interested in our work. And I don’t know where he picked up on our work, but that was seven, eight years ago, and we have been working together ever since.

Do you have any other projects down the pipeline?

Vertes: We have of course more advanced versions of both technologies that are being considered for commercialization, and they don’t want to give out the details on those, but we already have ideas about the next generation.

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GW Hospital

Mohamed Koubeissi, the director of the GW Hospital Epilepsy Center, led the group of researchers. Hatchet File Photo

A team of GW researchers may have accidentally discovered an on-off switch for consciousness in the human brain.

The group was trying to find the source of a woman’s seizures when it made her lose consciousness by stimulating a part of the brain called the claustrum, according to a report published this week by the research magazine New Scientist.

Led by Mohamed Koubeissi, an associate professor of neurology and the director of the GW Hospital Epilepsy Center, the researchers activated the thin sheet of neurons in the center of the brain repeatedly, and the woman reacted the same way each time: She lost consciousness but had no recollection of doing so.

Koubeissi told the magazine that they are sure the loss of consciousness was not a side effect of a seizure. He likened the case to a car.

“A car on the road has many parts that facilitate its movement – the gas, the transmission, the engine – but there’s only one spot where you turn the key and it all switches on and works together,” he told New Scientist. “So while consciousness is a complicated process created via many structures and networks, we may have found the key.”

Because the woman has epilepsy, a healthy brain may react differently to the treatment. The team is now planning to test whether triggering the claustrum can jolt a patient out of a minimally conscious state.

“Perhaps we could try to stimulate this region in an attempt to push them out of this state,” Koubeissi said.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014 4:44 p.m.

Business students collaborate with SEC

Updated: June 3, 2014 at 7:22 p.m.

This post was written by contributing news editor Jacqueline Thomsen.

Graduate business school students will spend the summer drawing up recommendations for the Securities and Exchange Commission about how to improve public disclosure of Fortune 500 companies’ financial records.

Eight students will review the annual financial statements of almost 50 companies before submitting a report in October to the federal agency’s top official, according to a release. They will suggest improvements to Form 10-K, the annual disclosure form for public companies.

The project, a collaboration between the University’s Institute for Corporate Responsibility and the Center for Audit Quality, a D.C.-based nonprofit, launched after SEC chair Mary Jo White called for investor-friendly improvements to the disclosure form.

Cynthia Glassman, a former commissioner and senior researcher at the Institute for Corporate Responsibility, and the Center for Audit Quality’s executive director will advise the students.

The University has looked to raise the business school’s profile and jolt fundraising after former dean Doug Guthrie was fired last year. GW announced last week that Linda Livingstone, dean of Pepperdine University’s business school, will replace Guthrie.

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported the last name of the incoming business school dean. It is Livingstone, not Graziado. Livingstone is currently the dean of the Graziadio School of Business at Pepperdine University. We regret this error.

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By investing in a computer cluster on the Virginia Science and Technology Campus, the University hopes to increase research on the campus by making it a destination for Foggy Bottom researchers. Hatchet File Photo

A computer cluster on the Virginia Campus for Science and Technology that will allow researchers to quickly crunch vast amounts of data could draw more faculty to the campus, giving the research camp a greater role within the University.

The $2 million cluster, called Colonial One, aims to increase interdisciplinary research, but also help raise the campus’ reputation in Virginia, where biotechnology companies are plentiful and could provide research opportunities for faculty and students. Professors across technical and medical fields often rely on high-performance computers to enhance research.

The 120-acre campus, located in Ashburn, Va., houses over 20 academic programs and will become home to a research centers focused on big data, genomics and computational biology that plan to open on the campus in the next few years. Those centers, in addition to Colonial One, will help shape the Virginia campus’s strategic plan, which is now being penned by Dean Ali Eskandarian.

“By virtue of being a rare valuable resource and an indispensable tool for complex problems requiring computational modeling, simulations, and calculations, Colonial One will be key in catalyzing collaboration among the researchers of the two campuses,” Eskandarian said in an email.

The plan will aim to further immerse the campus into the University. Students and faculty often have a difficult time getting to the campus, which sits about 45 minutes away from the Foggy Bottom Campus, because a shuttle system only goes back and forth a few times each day.

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The Virginia Science and Technology Campus will get $850,000 worth of new signs to help draw attention to the sparse but growing campus. Hatchet File Photo

The University will spend $850,000 on new signs to help its four academic and research buildings on the Virginia Science and Technology Campus stand out on its suburban highway in Ashburn, Va.

The funds, approved this month by the Board of Trustees, will help pay for GW-branded signs to help draw attention to the 120-acre Virginia campus, which the University is looking to build up by adding buildings, research centers and graduate programs there.

Now, the campus is sprawled along Route 7 in Loudoun County, where jobs have sprouted and the economy has boomed – making it an attractive location for GW to do research and make connections with the local government.

The new signs will be installed this summer and fall to help unify the campus, Virginia campus dean Ali Eskandarian said in an email. The campus will add 38-foot-wide entrance signs, pole-mounted flags, logos for its four buildings and signs to direct cars and pedestrians.

“The new signage will create a visual presence for the campus as well as increase the ease of wayfinding on the campus and enhance both the ‘campus feel’ and campus connectivity,” Eskandarian said in an email.

The approved funds were part of the nearly $8 million pegged for capital repairs next year. Of the about $17 million earmarked for capital repairs through 2016, nearly all will be covered by operating revenues, which are made up mostly by tuition dollars. Other capital projects, like new construction, are covered by fundraising and I.O.U.’s.

The Virginia campus, which is about a 45-minute bus ride away from Foggy Bottom, houses 17 research laboratories and nearly 20 degree programs. The School of Nursing is based on the campus, as well as several programs within the College of Professional Studies.

The University is also building a 22,000-square-foot museum and art storage facility on the campus, which is expected to be finished by the end of the year and has cost GW about $7 million so far. About 30,000 more square feet will be set aside for academic and research space in the building, which will hold collections for the GW Museum.

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Updated: Monday, April 29 at 10:04 p.m.

A $1 million donation to the University will fund an exchange program for graduate students and faculty in South Korea and explore building a residence hall on the Virginia Science and Technology Campus.

The endowment from Joong Keun Lee, the founder and chairman of a Seoul-based construction firm, will focus on researching new ways to use ondol, or underground heating, technology, through traveling with Seoul National University.

Ondol technology is a 5,000-year-old heating method used in Korea to heat houses by directing heat from a fire outside the home to a chimney on the other side. Charcoal, glass bottles and soil keep the heat in the house.

“Ondol, traditionally utilized by Koreans for thousands of years, promotes a healthy housing culture with an energy-efficient and eco-friendly environment,” Lee, who runs the Booyoung Group, said in a release. He and University President Steven Knapp signed the agreement Tuesday.

Seoul National University is ranked No. 37 in the world by U.S. News and World Report, and is a destination for many GW students studying abroad in South Korea.

The Booyoung Group has donated to American organizations like UN-Habitat and has built more than 600 primary schools in 14 countries including South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos.

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Interview conducted by Hatchet reporter Amelia Williams. 

Stephen Forssell, an adjunct psychology professor who will direct GW’s new certificate program in LGBT health starting this summer, has researched how having gay parents affects children. (He found that it doesn’t really matter whether or not an adopted child’s parents are the same gender.)

Stephen Forrsell, who will direct GW’s LGBT health graduate certificate program, said his study on how gay couples raise children is part of a bevy of social science research that shows same-sex marriage does not have negative consequences for children. Photo courtesy of Stephen Forrsell

So Forrsell found himself with distinct insights into Tuesday’s Proposition 8 case arguments when Anthony Kennedy, the associate justice expected to be the swing vote in the cases, said social science research was murky on the consequences of gay marriage.

The Hatchet talked to Forrsell about how social science research has played into the same-sex marriage debate and what could happen if justices rule against gay couples.

Hatchet: You published a study called “Parenting and Child Development in Adoptive Families: Does Parental Sexual Orientation Matter?” How does the publishing of those journals affect the public’s perceptions of gay marriage and gay parenting?

Forssell: I think it’s a slow process. And I know that either [Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin] Scalia or Kennedy brought that up.

Hatchet: Yes. In today’s oral arguments, Kennedy said, “We have five years of information to pose against 2,000 years of history or more.” So he’s essentially asking, “Why do we need to talk about this right now?”

Forssell: Well, first of all, 2,000 years of history includes many years of history where gay people were parenting kids and they were coming out just fine. As far as research goes, we don’t even have 2,000 years on heterosexual parenting.

But there’s far more than 5 years of history on gay parents. One of my co-authors on my study was Charlotte Patterson, and she argued in the Hawaii case in 1996, in the very first state that had same sex marriage on its radar. Now, by 1996, Charlotte had already published several years of data, looking at lesbian moms—both adoptive mothers and artificially inseminated mothers.

Hatchet: Let’s go back to the study that you published. Why is it important to keep publishing studies? How do they affect public opinion and policy decisions?

Forssell: The way that this affects public opinion is that, the general public, as a rule, isn’t going to “do the homework.” They hear things when different studies come out, and they can be swayed by things like this. So we, as researchers, need to keep doing the work.

In my study, I looked at both same-sex males and same-sex females and opposite-sex parents in an adoption study. No one had looked at those kids in those situations that are raised from birth — and that’s what we did. Many things change when kids are adopted, and we wanted them all raised from birth. So that’s something we added, and then someone else will add more.

Hatchet: If Kennedy remains dubious about the legitimacy of the cases — and if the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 are upheld — what would be the consequences if they were dismissed? What would that mean for the future of LGBT social science research?

Forssell: Well, social science will continue pushing on regardless, because psychologists and sociologists are naturally curious. We like understanding how things work, so we’ll keep publishing and conducting studies.

There will certainly be more urgency because even if the two acts are repealed, there’s still a need for this work, because we need to know what makes a healthy family. But what we’ve found with social science research is that two parents are better than one. And what’s been made clear by the research we’ve conducted is that it doesn’t matter what gender those parents are. It has more to do with just having two sets of hands and more resources. That’s a valuable resource that we can do whether or not they’re repealed.

Interview edited for length.


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The U.S. Senate easily approved a measure Wednesday to strip down federally funded political science research – a cut likely to make grants sparser for some GW professors.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has led the charge against political science research funding. The amendment he introduced last week passed the U.S. Senate Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Coburn’s Facebook page

The amendment, championed by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is part of a larger bill aimed at staving off another budget deadlock. It enforces stricter standards on National Science Foundation when the federal agency awards political science research grants.

The legislation is likely to pass the House of Representatives, which could be bad news for GW’s political science department. This year, the department is working with five NSF grants worth a total of about $690,000 on topics like how American’s attitudes toward social groups like Muslims affect their political beliefs.

The department also has secured grants from groups like the Carnegie Corporation and the Macarthur Foundation.

The legislation also kept intact most of the 5 percent cuts to the federally funded scientific and medical studies like those that prop up most of GW’s research arm imposed by the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration

Coburn took aim at political science research in a letter to National Science Foundation director Subra Suresh this month. Coburn belittled e organization’s funded research topics like Americans’ attitudes toward the filibuster and the rise of candidate-centered elections.

“[Those topics] hold little promise to save an American’s life from a threatening condition or to advance America’s competitiveness in the world,” Coburn wrote. “Research institutions and academic associations should support these investigations with their own resources.”

Some GW political science professors have been vocal in their opposition to the foundation’s defunding. Associate professor of political science John Sides has taken to his popular blog, The Monkey Cage, to petition against the measure.

Paul Wahlbeck, the department chair, said in an email earlier this month that defenders of political science research usually prevail despite harsh questioning from congressional critics.

“In a world filled with conflict, for instance, society benefits from better understanding of the role of political and international institutions,” Wahlbeck said. “Policymakers and citizens alike benefit from insights [from] basic research in political science.”

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This post was written by Hatchet reporter Amelia Williams.  

Peg Barratt, in her final year as dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, will travel to Japan in July to study early childhood practices. Hatchet File Photo

After Peg Barratt leaves her Columbian College of Arts and Sciences deanship in June, she will spend six months as a Fulbright scholar in Japan focusing on early childhood parenting.

The University announced Wednesday that Barratt, an expert in development psychology, earned a Fulbright U.S. Scholar award, a prestigious government-funded research program that sends 800 American faculty and professionals abroad each year.

Barratt will spend her six-month tenure at Japan’s Kyoto University, conducting research on the relationships between the country’s political and social policies and early childhood practices, like prenatal care, breastfeeding, income support, childcare and child safety

“Japan is a country that, objectively, is a lot like ours. But there are deep cultural differences that I find fascinating,” Barratt said in a release. “I’m interested in finding out how these cultural traditions and policy contexts influence the decisions families make.”

She has conducted research in Japan twice before, in the late 1980s and early 1990s at Osaka University.

She has spent some of her final year as dean in East Asia already, visiting China with other GW officials in November to examine potential academic space for the University’s first global undergraduate degree program at Renmin University.

Columbian College is knee deep in finding Barratt’s replacement, and will announce the next dean this month. Her deanship has helped faculty hiring and research funding improve in the college, but her leadership was bruised by faculty criticism in a survey last spring.


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