Obama transition: expectations, pressures and pitfalls

(Contributed by Clifton Parker)

President-elect Barack Obama will inherit an agenda of staggering uncertainty as the nation struggles with a fading economy while stuck in two wars overseas.

His success, UC Davis scholars say, depends in large measure on temperament and the decisions he makes after taking office Jan. 20. Some historians compare Obama’s challenges to the grave ones facing Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt when they took the reins of White House power.

Dean Simonton, psychology professor and the author of the books “Why Presidents Succeed,” and “Greatness: Who Makes History and Why,” says a president’s personality is as critical to how they perform on behalf of the country as the situational factors involved.

Octopuses prefer HDTV

At last a reason to buy a High-Definition TV: your octopus will enjoy it. Researcher Renata Pronk at Macquarie University in Sydney, OctopusAustralia has been using HD screens to study octopus behavior. Apparently the octopus eye is so sophisticated that standard definition video, at 24 frames per second, would look like a series of stills to them.

Pronk found that the octopus in the lab would try and attack a video of a crab (their favorite food). Shown a video of another octopus, they would either become aggressive or try to hide. They seemed uninterested in an unfamiliar object (a bottle on a string).

SacBee Delta feature

Sacbee.com has a major feature online and in print about the San Joaquin Delta, an issue Egghead has followed for some time, of course. Among the experts quoted are UC Davis professors Jeff Mount and Peter Moyle.

(Fisheries biologist) Moyle voted against the peripheral canal in 1982. But in July, he co-wrote a study for the Public Policy Institute of California that recommended building a canal. He became persuaded, he said, by the realities of the state’s water demand and the Delta’s limitations.

How a brain enhancing drug works

A new study published in Science this week by researchers from UC Davis neuroscientists shows how the attention-enhancing drug modafinil works.

Psychiatry professors Michael Minzenberg, Cameron Carter and colleagues used fMRI to observe brain activity in volunteers carrying out a task that requires concentration. They found that modafinil quiets activity in part of the brain stem called the locus ceruleus (LC) and increases its connections to the frontal cortex.

The drug shifts the brain from “exploration” mode, where lots of neurons fire seemingly at random, to “exploitation” mode, where neurons fire in concert as they are involved in a task.

Aggie astronaut tapped for fourth shuttle mission

Astronaut and UC Davis alumnus Steve Robinson will make his fourth flight on the Space Shuttle next December, NASA has announced. Robinson has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical and aeronautical engineering from UC Davis.

Robinson last flew on the shuttle in August 2005; here’s our comprehensive feature on his flight. Later that year he visited UC Davis to speak about his experiences and was awarded the University Medal by Chancellor Vanderhoef.  Another UC Davis alumnus, Tracy Caldwell, made her first shuttle flight in August 2007.

Webcasts of Robinson’s and Caldwell’s talks on campus:

Steve Robinson, Dec. 2005: Windows Media or RealOne webcast

Polluted Bay, deformed fish

A new study from UC Davis researchers shows that baby striped bass hatched from female fish collected from San Franciso Bay contain pollutants including flame retardants, industrial chemicals and pesticides passed on from their mothers. The hatchlings had damaged brains and livers, and grew more slowly than fish raised in clean water in a hatchery.

“This is one of the first studies examining the effects of real-world contaminant mixtures on growth and development in wildlife,” said study lead author David Ostrach, a research scientist at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. He said the findings have implications far beyond fish, because the estuary is the water source for two-thirds of the people and most of the farms in California.

PET/MRI combo is #6 on Top Innovations list

A scanner that combines PET (positron emission tomography) with MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is one of The Scientist magazine’s Top Innovations of the year in life sciences.

Simon Cherry and colleagues in the Department of Biomedical Engineering have been working for several years on PET scanners for small animals that could be used in laboratory research. Such machines open up new experiments, and also potentially reduce the number of animals used in research (One such machine is already in use at the California National Primate Research Center at UC Davis). Combining PET with MRI allows scans which show new types of information — MRI scans are good at showing internal body structure, while PET can be used to follow body processes in real time.

Nationalize Detroit, put Andy Frank in charge?

So says Huffington Post columnist Edward Humes. Calling Chrysler the weakest of the three U.S. automakers, he says:

Let’s buy its manufacturing capacity, parts supply network and manpower and turn it into the National Electric Car Company. Clean house at the top, and put a guy like Professor Andy Frank of the University of California-Davis in charge of product development, a true environmental hero and inventor who knows more about converting existing Detroit iron into clean, mean hybrid electric vehicles than anyone in the country.

Mouse study of breast cancer vaccine

Researchers lead by Michael DeGregorio and Greg Wurz at the UC Davis Cancer Center are beginning a study of a vaccine against breast cancer. Stimuvax, developed by Merck, targets MUC1, a molecule found in 90 percent of breast cancers. Working with lab mice, the researchers will test whether the vaccine can slow or prevent the growth of cancers when used in combination with standard hormone-blocking therapies.

To test the vaccine, the researchers will use mice bred to express the human MUC1 gene and a gene that causes spontaneous breast cancer.

Costs of war: three to 15 cents a gallon

The costs of U.S. military action in 2004 amounted to between three and 15 cents per gallon of gasoline or diesel used by Americans, according to a study by UC Davis transportation researcher Mark Delucchi and James Murphy, a former UC Davis graduate student now at the University of Alaska in Anchorage.

The full study was published earlier this year in the journal Energy Policy, available through Elsevier’s Science Direct portal (subscription may be required).