Mary Carmichael

Stories by Mary Carmichael

  • Climate: Get Out Your Handkerchiefs

    Daily life in the developed world has depended so much, for so long, on clean water that it is sometimes easy to forget how precious a commodity water is. The average American citizen doesn't have to work for his water; he has only to turn on the tap. But in much of the rest of the world, it isn't that simple. More than a billion people worldwide lack clean water, most of them in developing countries. The least fortunate may devote whole days to finding some.When they fail—and they fail more and more often now that rivers in Africa and Asia are slowly drying up after decades of mismanagement and climate change—they may turn to violence, fighting over the small amount that is left. Water has long been called the ultimate renewable resource. But as Fred Pearce writes in his book "When the Rivers Run Dry," if the world doesn't change, that saying may no longer apply.Like the famines of the '80s, the global water crisis is far more than a straightforward issue of scarcity. Accidents of...
  • New Research into Pain Treatment

    Millions of aging boomers and the latest generation of wounded soldiers hope the secrets of our most enduring medical foe can finally be unlocked
  • Can States Close the Research Funding Gap?

    Last week, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick announced a plan to boost the state budget for life sciences by $1.25 billion. The proposal immediately grabbed attention for its vision of a vast stem-cell bank, the world's largest, which would open up new opportunities for embryonic stem-cell research. It's a reaction, of course, to the federal government's refusal to pay for such work. But amid the excitement over stem cells, another part of Patrick's proposal got overlooked. It, too, addresses a crisis of funding at the federal level, albeit one that has gotten far less press: the stagnating budget of the National Institutes of Health, a problem that is hurting not just stem- cell researchers but biologists at large, particularly young researchers at the most vulnerable points in their careers.The NIH was once flush with money. Its budget doubled between 1998 and 2003 on the strength of enthusiastic support in Congress. Universities responded, hiring faculty and starting ambitious...
  • Making Sense Of Melting Ice

    Every year, the cap of sea ice floating atop the North Pole dwindles from about 14 million to 7 million square kilometers—a number that would panic scientists if it weren't a normal occurrence, courtesy of nature. Most of the summer shrinkage is caused by melting, and the pack ice grows again once winter arrives, freezing the choppy water back into solid sheets. Because it's a recurring cycle, scientists have never found this phenomenon worrisome. Until this year, when Ronald Kwok of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory rang the alarm. He'd noticed that in 2005, little of the ice that had formed the previous winter had gone on to survive the summer—making the Arctic cap the smallest it had been in five decades.The polar regions are notorious shape-shifters. Complex ecosystems, they can be swayed by factors from wind to water to warming, and their forbidding climate makes on-site research difficult. As a result, they're a bit of a mystery to scientists, and their future is hard to...
  • Health: Can Exercise Make You Smarter?

    Exercise does more than build muscles and help prevent heart disease. New science shows that it also boosts brainpower—and may offer hope in the battle against Alzheimer's.
  • Higher Math From Medieval Islam

    Ancient, closely held religious secrets; messages encoded on the walls of Middle Eastern shrines; the divine golden ratio—readers of a recent issue of the journal Science must have wondered if they'd mistakenly picked up "The Da Vinci Code" instead. In stretches of intricate tiling on several 500-year-old Islamic buildings, Peter Lu and Paul Steinhardt wrote, they'd spotted a large fragment of a mathematical pattern that was unknown to Western science until the 1970s. Islam gave the world algebra, from the Arabic al-jabr, a term referring to a basic equation. But this pattern is far from basic; it comes from much higher math. "The ridiculous thing is, this pattern has been staring Westerners in the face all this time," says Keith Critchlow, author of the book "Islamic Patterns." "We simply haven't been able to read it." Now that we can, though, it is serving as a startling indication of how accomplished medieval-era Muslims may have been.No one knows what the architects of the...
  • The Hidden Risks of Laparoscopic Surgery

    When surgeons removed Carol Hurlburt's diseased gallbladder in 2005, they had to cut a long, gory incision in her abdomen, and she was still hurting when her husband developed his own gallbladder infection a month later. Richard Hurlburt, however, was a candidate for a less painful, minimally invasive procedure performed with the aid of cameras inserted through small holes in his abdomen—a "laparoscopic cholecystectomy" that would have him home the next day. But, Carol says, Richard's common bile duct, which links the gallbladder, liver and small intestine, was cut. Over the next eight months, Richard became sicker and died waiting for a liver transplant. What was supposed to be a simple procedure ended in tragedy. Determining what caused it all, and where it went wrong, has moved from the hands of doctors to the hands of lawyers. Last summer, Carol filed suit.One of the most common surgical procedures in the country, performed on 750,000 patients annually, laparoscopic gallbladder...
  • The Solution

    The Problem: To celebrate the anniversary of Charles Darwin's birthday, on Feb. 12, 1809, Bob Stephens, a retired scientist, is organizing more than 850 celebrations worldwide--parties with bearded impersonators, serious debates and a guy in England who's skipping work, in jest, on religious grounds. How can American proponents of intelligent design respond? The Answer: The Discovery Institute, America's major proponent of intelligent design, is sponsoring a talk on whether Darwin is "being turned into a saint for secular humanists." The institute's John West says he wants to counteract events that "bash religion." Stephens's reply: while the Darwin Day events include 500-plus pro-evolution sermons, he's publicizing the institute's event with all the others, since he rejects only those that are "really quite inappropriate." In other words, even an odd fit will survive.
  • To Reach for the Moon

    Western analysts still can't say what Beijing was thinking when it shot down one of its aging weather satellites. True, the recent test was a fine show of marksmanship, destroying a refrigerator-size target sailing at orbital speed 500 miles up (as high as U.S. spy satellites). But was it worth risking a new arms race? Was it even worth the mess it caused? The Union of Concerned Scientists says the test left some 2 million pieces of shrapnel in orbit, each one a threat to any country's passing spacecraft. That's why Washington and Moscow gave up such tests decades ago: the space lanes are already littered with too much potentially lethal debris.The drifting wreckage is a danger not only to other countries' spacecraft but to China's own ambitions for the heavens--which go far beyond blinding the U.S. military. Beijing put its first man into orbit less than four years ago. Today the Chinese are reaching for the moon. The first step, the launching of an unmanned lunar orbiter, is...
  • Longevity: The Nobel Effect

    The nobel prize isa lot more than a medal. Winners get $1.4 million and the world's best résumé line. Here's another thing to file under "life's not fair": Nobel winners also live longer. New research from the University of Warwick says that academics who get the fateful phone call from Sweden stick around about two years longer than colleagues who don't make the final list. The effect mirrors what's been seen before in Oscar winners, whose life spans grow with every statue they take home. (Tom Hanks will be with us forever.) Since only four people have ever won multiple Nobels, though--and one, Marie Curie, had a shorter life because of her prize-winning work on dangerous radiation--the researchers couldn't document a truly identical trend. Still, they were able to figure out that, as with Oscars, it wasn't the cash that did the trick. Apparently, the key to long life among Nobel laureates was simply having the bragging rights.The research has some lessons for mere mortals, too: it...
  • International Periscope

    Does the international war on terror have a new front? Earlier this month, police in western Xinjiang province swept down on a camp where, Chinese authorities say, armed Muslims were stockpiling explosives: 18 militants were shot dead and 17 arrested. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said the militants were members of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) who had "carried out a series of violent terrorist activities" and were "associated with international terrorist forces." It was the first time China had ever claimed the presence of a foreign-linked terrorist base on its soil.For decades China has battled militants of the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighur minority who seek an independent homeland. After the U.S. launched its "war on terror" in 2001, China began to brand the separatists "international terrorists," with Washington's approval. But it never proved a foreign link. After the recent raid, however, the official Xinhua news agency claimed that Al Qaeda had...
  • Escaping A Moral Mess

    Stem-cell research is divided into two major camps: one focused on cells from adults, the other on the controversial technique that destroys embryos. Now there may be a third way--a new category of stem cells that are readily available, perhaps ethically trouble-free and possibly as powerful and as flexible in function as their embryonic counterparts: amniotic-fluid stem cells, found in both the placenta and the liquid that surrounds growing fetuses.The cells are "neither embryonic nor adult. They're somewhere in between," says Dr. Anthony Atala, a tissue-engineering specialist at Wake Forest University, who led a team that published the findings last week in the journal Nature Biotechnology. The "AFS cells" rival embryonic stem cells in their ability to multiply and transform into many different cell types, and they eventually could be hugely helpful to doctors in treating diseases throughout the body and building new organs in the lab. At the same time, the amniotic cells can be...
  • When The Body Attacks Itself

    The immune system is what keeps most people's bodies healthy and free of disease, but for as many as 23 million Americans, it is a cause of disease, too. In autoimmune disorders, the system goes haywire, mistaking the body's own tissues for foreign invaders and destroying them. Drugs for these conditions, which include type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and lupus, have been elusive. But on Sunday, scientists are reporting in the journal Nature that they have found a set of 30 genes that go awry in autoimmune disorders—and that could be potential targets for cures. NEWSWEEK's Mary Carmichael spoke with two of the discoverers, Richard Young, a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Whitehead Institute, and Alexander Marson, an M.D./Ph.D. student in Young's lab. Excerpts:NEWSWEEK: What do these 30 genes normally do in a healthy person's body?Richard Young: There was a very, very important discovery made about a decade ago, which was that a specialized class of ...
  • A New Era Begins

    Stem-cell research is divided into two major camps: one focused on cells from adults, the other on the controversial technique that destroys embryos. But important research published Sunday supports the idea of a third way, a new category of stem cells that are readily available, perhaps ethically trouble-free and possibly as powerful and flexible in function as their embryonic counterparts: "amniotic-fluid stem cells," found in both the placenta and the liquid that surrounds growing fetuses.The cells are "neither embryonic nor adult. They're somewhere in between," says Dr. Anthony Atala, a tissue-engineering specialist at Wake Forest University who led the research team. (The study appears in the journal Nature Biotechnology.) The "AFS cells" rival embryonic stem cells in their ability to multiply and transform into many different cell types, and they eventually could be hugely helpful to doctors in treating diseases throughout the body and building new organs in the lab. At the...
  • Stem Cells Are Where It's At

    Seventeen years ago, Richard Burt, an immunologist at Northwestern University, had a crazy idea. What if he could press the "restart" button on his patients, destroying their faulty immune systems and building them new ones? The regeneration process would be hard, but he'd heard about something called stem-cell research that might help. It took eight years to get FDA approval. "When we did that first patient," he says, "you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife."Today Burt has treated 170 patients with stem cells, and increasingly, others are following his lead. There are now more than 1,000 stem-cell therapies in early human trials around the world. The vast majority use cells from patients' own bone marrow, but doctors are also using cells from healthy adults, and last month saw the first patient treated with embryonic cells, which have triggered much debate in the United States. After years of being thought of as science fiction--the domain of animal labs and the distant...
  • A Terrible Mystery

    Thomas Insel spent years training as a psychiatrist in the 1970s, and in all that time he saw not one child with autism. In 1985, curiosity sent him searching; it took several phone calls to find a single patient. His only prior exposure to the disorder was a lecture in which Bruno Bettelheim "explained that it was due to evil mothers." The '70s were, he says, "an era of psychiatry that had no science."Today's psychiatry has science--and it is science--and increasingly, it is offering hope for patients with autism. As director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Insel now heads an agency that funds autism research all over the nation and also conducts projects of its own. Thanks to revolutions in neuroscience and genetics, scientists are starting to unravel the shroud of mystery that has hung over autism since it was first described in 1943. But with each new discovery, more questions arise.That includes the most fundamental question of all: what is autism? Although the...
  • Drugs: Family Docs Join the Drug War

    In the war on drugs, the White House has tried just about every weapon--punitive policy, rehab programs, ads featuring fried eggs. For its next strike, it has some new recruits: family doctors. Seventeen states currently have simple, federally funded drug-and-alcohol-screening programs in place at major trauma centers. The Office of National Drug Control Policy is now trying to take the idea into general practitioners' offices nationwide. "Most people who have a problem with drinking are right under the radar, and they're not seeing specialists. Family doctors could find them," says Larry Gentilello, professor of surgery at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical School. "We're trying to convince these doctors that if they do nothing else ... they will have had a major impact on public health," says Bertha Madras, the ONDCP's deputy director for demand reduction. She may well be right. Gentilello, who came up with an early version of the questionnaire favored by the ONDCP, says...
  • The Writer Will See You Now

    It’s not an official medical report, and it won’t help doctors treat the patient it’s about, but Dr. Dena Rifkin’s write-up tells a story that the dry clinical language of medicine never could. “There are startling moments that you don’t forget,” it begins, and clearly this was one of them—a night in which a young Rifkin, not even yet an M.D., stumbled out of sleep and into a pa­tient’s room to find him soaked in blood. “The patient looked up at me, and opened his mouth as if to speak,” she writes. “Blood came out instead of words, slick and shiny as an oil spill.”That patient is long since out of her hands, and it’s too late to help him. But by writing about him, Rifkin may be helping herself—and, in the long run, her future patients. The piece was her submission to a Yale writing workshop for young doctors taught by the medical writer Dr. Abraham Vergh­ese. Rifkin liked the seminar so much she went back for a second round with author Dr. Richard Selzer. And the program’s or...
  • A Piece of the Puzzle

    Earlier this week, scientists announced that they had for the first time pinpointed a common version of a gene that strongly increases the risk for autism. Children with the gene variant have more than double the normal risk of developing the disorder. Researchers say the gene, called MET, is definitely not the only one with a role in autism—other genetic differences, as well as environmental factors, are almost certainly involved—but the discovery has the potential to reshape the way scientists search for those causes. However, it's important to note that it will be years before the true impact of this research will be known. NEWSWEEK's Mary Carmichael spoke with Vanderbilt University's Pat Levitt, a developmental neurobiologist who led the study. Excerpts:NEWSWEEK: What does the MET gene do? How does it work, or in cases of autism, not work?Pat Levitt: The gene does a lot of different things. First, for the architecture of the brain to develop properly, there are genes whose...
  • Case Study: A Standard Approach

    It's been 124 years since caleb Cooley Dickinson, cousin of the poet Emily, endowed the hospital in Northampton, Mass., that bears his name--and he'd barely recognize the modern institution it has become. Cooley Dickinson Hospital has gleaming operating rooms; in April 2007, it will open a large new building. Nonetheless, a few things haven't changed much at the hospital since its benefactor was alive. Take its way of keeping medical records. In the age of smart cards, Cooley Dickinson manages its medication information using paper and pencils. Patients carry wallet-size yellow cards that list their medications, their last vaccinations and their contact information; when they visit doctors, they present their info for updating. The cards are part of a recent overhaul that has focused on deceptively simple, and mostly affordable, ideas. "Sometimes, we get so focused on the latest technology," says director of quality Donna Truesdell, "that it's easy to lose sight of the basics."Those...
  • They Call Her 'Lucy's Daughter'

    It's been 3.2 million years since she died--and 32 since she was unearthed from the Ethiopian desert and christened after a Beatles song--but the prehuman fossil known as Lucy can still draw a crowd. Six hundred people showed up last Thursday at Georgia College & State University to meet her discoverer, Don Johanson, who was promoting his book "From Lucy to Language." From now on, though, Lucy will have to share the spotlight. On the same day, halfway around the world in Addis Ababa, a Johanson protégé named Zeresenay Alemseged was showing off another, newly revealed Australopithecus afarensis fossil--a toddler the media nicknamed "Lucy's baby." And in Georgia and elsewhere, the little girl captured the public imagination as her relative had three decades earlier. After his speech, Johanson says, "somebody asked me how it felt to be a grandfather."Technically, he shouldn't be passing out cigars. The new specimen--whose real name is Selam, or "peace," in Amharic--was born about 5...
  • Med-School Makeover

    Dr. A. Scott Pearson's patient had a problem--two problems, actually, and only one of them seemed fixable by a surgeon. The patient, an elderly man, needed to have a tumor removed from his colon. He also didn't want to have the operation. Pearson, a surgical oncologist at Vanderbilt University, could have sent his reluctant patient home. Instead, he and his residents asked to hear the backstory. "He was the sole provider for his wife, who was an invalid," Pearson says. "He couldn't put her care in jeopardy while he got better." A team of doctors and social workers arranged temporary care for the patient's wife, and soon he lay recovering in a hospital bed.Pearson may have exceptionally good instincts, but his technique is increasingly being taught in med schools. Known as narrative medicine, it's part of a new approach among physicians and medical educators to consider patients' personal stories as much as their test results in determining the course of treatment. Dr. Rita Charon of...