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Being Human

Whether it’s Joshua Greenberger’s study on infant language acquisition, Marco Mendoza’s wheelchair propulsion research or Maureen McCarthy’s look at chimpanzees and their vanishing habitats, students and faculty in two new USC Dornsife programs are exploring what it means to be human in mind and body.

By Laurie Moore
April 22, 2012

Photos by Brad Wilson.

Photos by Brad Wilson.

We humans are unique animals. Each of us may define what it means to be human differently. We place value in memory, form cultures, innovate, question the purpose of life, and dream of the future.

Since the beginning of our modern existence, we have been examining ourselves through the lens of countless fields of intellectual study, from neuroscience to philosophy to religion.

In anthropology, we are Homo sapiens who walk upright on two legs and hold within our skulls a highly developed brain capable of forming language, problem solving and reasoning. To social critics throughout the years, humans are creatures both moral and immoral, loving and hateful, successful and blundering, hopeful and despairing.

In a lecture on wit and humor in 1819, English writer William Hazlitt noted, “Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.”

Two new programs offered by USC Dornsife focus on the exploration of the human being: cognitive science, an undergraduate major, examines the human mind and cognition; the human and evolutionary biology section, part of biological sciences, focuses on the human body. Both were introduced in Fall 2011 and offer multifaceted, interdisciplinary looks into our own nature.

“I think it’s very important to explore who we are, where we come from and what we’re capable of,” said Klaudija Flori, a junior cognitive science and psychology major. “The more we learn about how the brain works, the better we can understand our mind and explain our behavior.”

The new cognitive science major combines courses in the fields of anthropology, computer science, linguistics, mathematics, philosophy and psychology for a unique approach to the study of the mind.

“These different disciplines are coming together and enabling new kinds of discoveries that wouldn’t be so readily achieved working within just one discipline,” said Toby Mintz, associate professor of psychology and linguistics, and director of the cognitive science major. Mintz’s own research on the mechanisms underlying language acquisition incorporates his knowledge of linguistics and psychology as well as computer science.

The undergraduate students currently in the major bring even more disciplines to their studies.

Mary Waller was thrilled to find a major that combined anthropology, philosophy, linguistics and psychology — the four fields she wanted to study. The freshman, double majoring in cognitive science and Spanish, said that working in so many areas gives her more flexibility and “a little bit more oomph” to her research. This summer, Waller travels to Taiwan to take part in a Problems Without Passports course documenting an endangered indigenous language.

In addition to Spanish, Waller speaks French, and has found that her new studies in cognitive science have impacted the way she views language. “Speaking a foreign language allows you to really delve deeper into that culture,” she said. “Next year, when I take a class in anthropology or psychology, it’s going to be cool to have a linguistics take on it.”

Freshman Colin Conwell has a double major in cognitive science and international relations, and a minor in psychology and law.

“A degree in cognitive science really says I have a diverse array of interests,” said Conwell, who plans to pursue a career in international criminal courts.

“The study of the mind — and in my field of interest, the defects of the mind — and how this influences criminal and social behavior is highly pertinent to my study of international relations,” he said. “I’m finding that I’m applying my psychological study of social behavior to international relations, and there are quite a few overlaps.”

Joshua Greenberger, a cognitive science major and minor in jazz studies, is conducting research on language acquisition with psychology graduate student Susan Geffen in Mintz’s lab. They’re testing whether infants can understand the difference between questions and statements. “The study is very psychology-based, as we’re trying to track human behavior, and the linguistics part is trying to isolate the different variables in language and how we learn them,” he said. “As a freshman, I love having a window into all these different fields.”

An experience with a friend suffering from depression, and the desire to understand what was happening in the brain to cause this state, inspired Greenberger to pursue the study of the mind. “I’ve always been interested in what makes people unique.”

What also makes humans unique is how we physically interact with the world. In attempting to understand ourselves, studying the role of our bodies as biological organisms is just as vital as studying our behaviors and emotions.

The new human and evolutionary biology section in USC Dornsife’s biological sciences department is focused on the structure and function of the human being in terms of development, environment, pathology and evolution. The research section brings together faculty from diverse disciplines such as bioanthropology, biomechanics and physiology to study how the body as an integrated system works and overcomes challenges encountered in everyday life.

“We’re interested in the whole human,” said Casey Donovan, professor of biological sciences and head of the section, who researches the mechanisms by which the body detects and responds to low blood sugar, and the role this plays in conditions such as diabetes. “This involves looking at everything from molecular components on up through cells, tissues, tissue interactions, and in some cases how behavior and movement emerge from these elements.”

The work of human and evolutionary biology faculty and their graduate students demonstrates the interdisciplinary research that epitomizes the new section.

Jill McNitt-Gray is professor of biological sciences and biomedical engineering and director of the graduate program in integrative and evolutionary biology, which is administered by the new section. She uses principles of physiology, mechanics and mathematics to study the neural control and musculoskeletal dynamics during human movement. The challenge — and fascination — of biomechanics is studying how the body takes advantage of an ever-changing set of physiological capabilities to improve performance and avoid injury across the lifespan.

Unlike machines, the structures of our bodies are alive and adapt to loads experienced during activities of daily life. So it is important to keep moving and, as she said, “use it or lose it.”

Marco Mendoza, a doctoral student and provost fellow, takes an engineering approach to his research on the effects of fatigue on shoulder control and dynamics in wheelchair propulsion. For men and women dependent on wheelchairs for mobility, repetitive use of the shoulders during manual wheelchair propulsion can often lead to pain that can significantly impact health and active involvement in their community. Preventative strategies that translate science into improved shoulder function are a primary aim of Mendoza’s research.

In partnership with the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, Calif., Mendoza uses three-dimensional motion capture, electromyography to monitor muscle activation patterns, and smart wheels that record forces to analyze how each individual propels a wheelchair.

“Understanding how a person effectively interacts with his or her wheelchair provides me an opportunity to find solutions for preserving shoulder function without injury,” he said. “Simply changing the way people push wheelchairs can have a direct impact on their overall health and quality of life.”

Anne Jokiaho is currently working with Donovan to understand the role of glucose sensors in conditions such as diabetes. “Insulin treatment is not perfect, and as a result, hypoglycemia is a limiting factor in everyday life for people with insulin-dependent diabetes,” she said.

By examining neuronal projections from the periphery and hindbrain to the hypothalamus, the brain’s control center, she is able to determine those elements critical to detecting the onset of hypoglycemia. Exploring the connections between these glucose-sensing elements may enable researchers to identify what goes wrong when the body does not sense hypoglycemia correctly and contribute to a more effective treatment of the disease.

Graduate student Maureen McCarthy has spent months in the tropical rain forests of western Uganda studying our closest living relatives — chimpanzees. She combines observational research with genetics and spatial devices like global positioning systems to track how far chimpanzees travel through forests that have been reduced in size by human settlements and deforestation. Genetic testing also gives her insight into the amount of gene flow between different forest fragment communities.

It is often cited that humans and chimpanzees share between 98 and 99 percent of their DNA, so in addition to studying them for purposes of conservation, McCarthy finds implications that impact people as well.

“Chimps are often used as a model for understanding human evolution,” she said. “Understanding how they respond to changing environments might also help us to understand how our own human ancestors may have adapted.”

For many of these programs’ students and faculty, the decision to devote their studies to aspects of human nature came naturally.

“Why would you not be interested in studying humans?” asked graduate student Silvana Constantinescu of integrative and evolutionary biology, who works with adviser Lorraine Turcotte of biological sciences on the regulation of fatty acid metabolism and its connection to obesity and type 2 diabetes.

“After all, we are human beings.”

Read more articles from the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of USC Dornsife Magazine