How Preschool Can Make You Smarter and Healthier

brainI’ve recently been reporting on a bustling area of research in neuroscience about how life experience can change the biology of the brain, especially in childhood. Here’s a story I wrote for PBS.

PBS NOVA

There was a sense of idealism in the air in 1971 when Craig Ramey, a psychologist in his late 20s with a newly minted Ph.D., took a job in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to launch what would become one of the longest-running educational experiments in history. … Conventional wisdom said you were either born smart or you weren’t (a misconception that lingers in the public’s imagination even today). But in the 1960s, evidence mounted from a few small parenting and education projects for young children—combined with laboratory tests on rats, cats and monkeys—that the first years of life could shape your intelligence. …

It was a seminal moment—the first chapter in whole line of research that is still changing how we think about intelligence, poverty, and the child brain.

[Read more.]

Loving the Puget Sound to Death

Screen_Shot_Ostrander_NHJF_thumbI reported the following story as a National Health Journalism Fellow with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

The Nation

Ringed by the white-capped Cascade and Olympic Mountains, Puget Sound looks pristine. But four decades after the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, regulators haven’t kept up with the pressures of growing populations near America’s shorelines, here or elsewhere in the country. [Read more.]

Riley Morton and John de Graaf also produced this stunning companion video, in collaboration with me and Frank Reynolds at The Nation.

Can GMOs Help Feed a Hot and Hungry World?

rsz_plantsThe Nation

Eduardo Blumwald’s genetically modified plants don’t look much like “Frankenfood.” Filling four modest greenhouses in a concrete lot behind Blumwald’s laboratory at the University of California, Davis, the tiny seedlings, spiky grasses, alfalfa, and peanut and rice plants in plastic terracotta-colored pots look exactly like the ordinary varieties from which he and his fellow researchers created them. Blumwald’s lab lies just ten miles from Monsanto’s 90,000-square-foot vegetable seed building, a glassy edifice larger than the hangar for a 747. The Monsanto facility is one of the largest centers in the world for plant breeding and genetic engineering. But in the fourteen years that Blumwald, a professor of cell biology, has worked here studying the DNA of crop plants, he has hardly ever spoken to anyone from Monsanto.

Blue-eyed and round-faced, with a lilting Argentinian accent, Blumwald grows exasperated when he talks about the so-called “Big Ag” companies, which he says have been arrogant in dealing with the public, contributing to a distrust of biotech research. But he also doesn’t appreciate the activists who’ve been challenging not only the Monsantos of the world but the entire field of genetic engineering.

“You want to penalize the multinationals; I have no problem with that,” he tells me in his office at the university’s plant biology building. “But because of your political stance against multinationals, you are going to condemn maybe the only viable solution we have for our future? It’s wrong—absolutely wrong.” [Read more.]

Climate Change Up Close

 

Photo by F Delventhal

Photo by F Delventhal

Ensia

If you’ve ever wondered how much little things really matter, consider the mountain pine beetle. Roughly the size of a grain of rice, the glossy black insect lives only about a year, but a female beetle can travel as far as 30 miles to find a pine tree, where its larvae can hatch and eat the inside of the bark. A throng of beetles can ravage a pine as tall as an eight-story building, as the tree first oozes sap, then its needles turn rusty red. In the past decade, in the pine forests that bristle across the U.S. West and Southwest, from Alaska to southern California, millions of acres of pines have died in one of the worst pine beetle epidemics anyone has ever seen. Foresters have suspected for more than two decades that an explosion of insects was in the cards, based on predictions for global warming. … But global predictions for climate change, though consistent on large-scale trends, weren’t specific enough … [Read more.]

EPA Cuts and a Math Problem

Today Obama announced carbon cuts for existing power plants. Many environmentalists are cheering this move, but even these limits leave society in a kind of climate-change limbo. The rules will chop emissions by 30 percent over 2005 levels by 2030. A paper published last year by Dutch scientists estimates that countries like the United States need to cut carbon by as much as half below 1990 levels by 2020 just to have a decent chance of staying within a 2-degree Celsius threshold of warming. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve spoken with climate scientists modeling the impacts of global warming all over North and Central America. They are now able to paint an ever more specific, vivid, and dire picture, via advances in climate modeling. The hotter we get (the further above 2 degrees), the more dramatic and frightening the future looks—more fires, more forests dying off in the Rockies, more water shortages, higher sea-level rise. Is it enough for the rest of us to begin doing our own calculations about the risks, choices, and sacrifices we’re facing?

Will global warming leave L.A.’s poor under water?

2014-01-21 12.49Al Jazeera America

LOS ANGELES — A contractor laughed when Robin Rudisill asked, more than five years ago, if she should consider the impact of rising sea levels in her plans for remodeling her taupe-colored three-story house here on the oceanfront walk of Venice Beach. “I was serious,” she said.

Rudisill had moved into the house with her mother, grandmother and daughter a few years after leaving her job as a top financial executive at Bank of America. “I have a lot of people to take care of. I’ve got to figure out how long this place will last,” she said. “He thought that was the dumbest thing he’d ever heard.”

The science has since proved her point. [Read more.]

Can the Stuck-in-Place Economy Help Us Face Climate Change?

YES! Magazine

After I finished high school in the flat, square corn country of central Illinois, I fled—along with many of my fellow classmates. We chased jobs or graduate school in places like San Francisco, New York, or Washington, D.C. I settled in Seattle. It wasn’t until I hit my 30s that I became aware of the social costs of this mobility … .

But in the last couple of years, Americans have begun to change their itinerant ways. Since the mid-1980s, an ever-smaller percentage of people are changing locations. [Read more.]

Bluegrass Uprising

spring_houseThe Nation

Lorrie Reed lives alone in a trailer on a rural road outside Frankfort, Kentucky, on two acres of land that her late husband bought more than twenty years ago. He left the property to her and their daughters when he died in a motorcycle accident. “He told me before he passed that the place was going to be mine, and the only way I’d lose it was if I let somebody mess me out of it,” Reed says.

Ever since this past summer, when land agents approached her—twice—to ask permission to survey a proposed pipeline route across her property, Reed repeats these words to herself. She walks with a limp, an injury from a collision with a dump truck during the years that she worked on road maintenance crews. She owns a pistol because she is afraid of the feral dogs that she says are common in the area. She held the gun in her palm when the pipeline consultants pulled into her gravel driveway. “You’re trespassing,” she told them. [Read more.]