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LBC Students Attend Inaugural Meeting of the International Society for Evolutionary Medicine and Public Health

Tempe, AZ, March 19-21, 2015

Our group in front of the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel. From left to right: Ryan Owen, Justin Jabara, Collin Stapleton-Reinhold, Jim Smith, Julie Horvath, Andrew Benner, Lauren Mamaril, and James Conwell.

On Thursday March 19, 2015, six Lyman Briggs College students, accompanied by Dr. Jim Smith (LBC Biology), traveled to Tempe, Arizona to attend the inaugural meeting of the International Society for Evolutionary Medicine and Public Health (EMPH). The meeting, held at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel, brought together nearly 200 research scientists and physicians committed to the idea that evolutionary thinking can help us better understand human health and disease.

The trip was made possible for our students by generous support from the Lyman Briggs College, the MSU Honors College, and the NSF-funded BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in action.

One highlight of the trip was our encounter with LBC alumna Dr. Julie Horvath (Lyman Briggs Zoology, 1996), who is currently Research Associate Professor of Biology at North Carolina Central University and Director of the Genomics & Microbiology Research Laboratory at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Julie gave a talk at the EMPH conference on her work using NextGen sequencing technology to study the microbiome of human skin environments. After her talk, the MSU group had a chance to meet Julie over lunch and talk about her work. Of course, we also talked a little bit about life as a student in LBC and at MSU!

As a part of the trip to Arizona, each student who attended the conference was asked to provide a “blog post”, in the form of a paragraph describing their Arizona journey from an intellectual standpoint, and a paragraph describing the trip from an experiential standpoint. What follows below is what each of them wrote:


Andrew Benner

Of the presentations that I attended during my time at the conference for Evolutionary Medicine and Public Health, the one that moved me the most was Dr. Erida Gjini’s presentation, entitled “Integrating antimicrobial therapy with host immunity to fight resistant infections: classical vs. adaptive treatment.”Dr. Gjini, a post-doctoral researcher at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia in Portugal, combined clinical, experimental, genetic, and epidemiological strategies to formulate a mathematical model to analyze and calculate the optimal level of antibiotic treatment. Specifically, this adaptive treatment model analyzes an array of variables, including symptom threshold, determining the proper dosage, timing, and duration of treatment. The incredible finding in all of this is that synergistic clearance by drug and host immunity optimizes treatment outcomes. Rather than using a massive amount of antibiotics, a more moderate treatment allows the human body to intertwine its immunological functions with the antibiotic, working together to produce a more successful, unified treatment. However, the moderate dose must come at the ‘right’ time, as a foundation/sufficient immune response is necessary for the body to properly respond in the presence of antibiotics. The tricky aspect is determining the optimal place along the timeline for treatment since application at the early stages of bacterial growth is vital. Dr. Gjini’s research and mathematical model was an eye opening method for me to see with respect to analyzing and predicting the optimal level of antibiotic dosage, treatment timing, and host immune response.

The trip to Arizona was an extraordinary experience for me due to a multitude of aspects. Although demanding and extremely dense in scientific jargon, the bits and pieces of understanding proved to be an irreplaceable exposure to the realm of evolutionary medicine and professional research in general. An aspect of the trip that I did not anticipate was my interaction with my classmates, as well as the professionals at the conference. I was able to gain insight on the lives of my classmates and the researchers that were present, aside from just an academic understanding. Although we still had conversations about the lectures we were attending and relevant coursework/research interests, it was an experience in itself getting to know my peers outside of the confines of the classroom. Learning about the experiences as well as the array of triumphs and struggles encountered by a variety of individuals was simply extraordinary. Researchers at the conference were often very personable and could relate to where we currently are in our lives as undergraduates, with plenty of exciting/terrifying experiences to share. The social aspect of our attendance at the meetings on Evolutionary Medicine and Public Health was as equally rewarding as the academic.


James Conwell

I have had the opportunity to travel for both school and professionally throughout my senior year, but this trip to Tempe, Arizona certainly stood out. The conference was fantastic, and it was a neat experience to learn from classmates, as well as others in the field. We are all extremely thankful for the work and time that Dr. Smith put in to make the trip a possibility.

There were a number of fascinating presentations at the Evolutionary Medicine Conference, however, one has stood out in particular to me. I had the opportunity to see Mr. Casey Roulette, a Ph. D. candidate at Washington State University, give a presentation on the effect of plant drug use in humans, and the relationship with human parasites. In his research, he was able to follow a group of people in the Central African Republic to test the relationship between the number of gut parasites that they had and their drug use. His research indicated that those who were using tobacco or marijuana had lower amounts of gut parasites compared to those in that population who did not use those drugs. I later spoke with Mr. Roulette about his research, and we discussed drug use in our culture, and the possibility of drug users having allergies, as there may be a link between IgE and drug use. It was a fascinating concept for me to think about. This experience and topic has intrigued me so greatly that I am now writing my senior research paper on the need for research on the relationship between allergies and drug use.

While the conference itself was fantastic, one of the neater points was having the opportunity to connect with my classmates who attended, as well as meet other professionals in the field, and get to know them personally. The directors of the conference did an excellent job of getting everyone out in the beautiful Arizona sunshine, and encouraging others to meet, and to learn a bit about them. One great opportunity to meet others was how all of the meals at the conference were outside, in a break from the professional setting, and the options for eating were endless. Beyond this, a man named Baba Brinkman rapped about Evolutionary Medicine, and it was a fun way to think about the content of the conference. Everybody laughed, and had a great time at his show.

However, I think one of my favorite parts of the trip was going to explore Arizona’s natural beauty with some classmates and some new friends from the conference. Arizona is a gorgeous state. Overall, this was a great end to a wonderful undergraduate academic career at Michigan State University, and I am thankful for having had the chance to take the trip.

Justin Jabara

Travelling to Tempe, Arizona was one of the highlights of my senior year. The opportunity to learn in this unique way was provided to us by Dr. Smith, we are all very thankful that he put the time and effort into organizing this amazing trip for us!

During the Evolutionary Medicine conference there were many interesting presentations but one was of particular interest to me. Dr. Charles Nunn from Duke University gave a presentation on the evolution of sleep that focused on how humans compare to other great apes. One of the conclusions of the study was that of the great apes (humans included) we sleep the least. In contrast to this reduced sleep time, we spend more time in REM sleep than any other great ape. This is important because sleep plays such a critical role in health and happiness. For example, when a patient suffering from depression begins pharmaceutical antidepressant therapy, REM sleep greatly decreases. This is because antidepressants target monoamines, which mediate sleep cycles. Applying findings of evolutionary medicine to medical problems such as this one can lead to novel ways of thinking about diseases and progress in their medical treatments.

We had a blast in Arizona. After the conference was over we found the hotel pool and soaked in the sun. It was awesome having 90 degree weather in March. We also made friends with people at the conference. One person we met was Will from Newcastle University, who was in his final year of medical school. We ended up spending quite a bit of time with him and became friends. We even travelled via Uber to an awesome desert botanical garden a few miles north of Tempe. Overall, the trip to Arizona was a smashing experience!

Lauren Mamaril

My experience at the International Society for Evolution, Medicine & Public Health meeting in Tempe, AZ was a first of its kind for me. This was my first time seeing the fascinating research being done in various topics under Evolutionary Medicine. One of the presentations I found most interesting included an evolutionary standpoint of natural birth and Caesarian section, presented by Dr. Wenda Trevathan from New Mexico State University. Dr. Trevathan examined excessive C-section rates in various countries, and suggested that relationships exist between the rise in C-section and the rise in HIV, obesity, diabetes, and maternal age. Also with elective C-section, she brought to light that an infant does not receive the same gut microbe colonization compared to vaginal birth from the mom. She examined tocophobia, or the fear of vaginal delivery and suggested that the anxiety and pain experienced during childbirth may be advantageous. From the evolutionary medicine treatment perspective, Dr. Trevathan implied that providing emotional support through the birth experience may be a healthier option than elective C-section. This is so important because an emotional support option lowers the risk of elective surgery to both mother and infant, offering an alternative approach rather than medical intervention.

I am grateful I had the opportunity to attend a professional Evolutionary Medicine conference. The Mission Palms at Tempe conference center is a beautiful facility featuring a courtyard and numerous orange trees, and only contributed even more positively to this opportunity. Aside from the facility and beautiful weather, I had the unique opportunity to meet with many of the pioneers of this field, including Dr. Randolph Nesse, President of the International Society for Evolutionary Medicine and Public Health, and MSU Lyman Briggs’ own, Dr. Julie Horvath, who directs a research lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Also, having this experience with my fellow classmates allowed me to get to know them better compared to just being in a classroom setting. It was cool to see what their interests in medicine are, what makes them click, and which particular presentations struck them the most in comparison to my own interests. The important takeaway from this experience and being in Dr. Smith’s Evolutionary Medicine Senior Seminar is the new pair of eyes I’ve gained to view medicine and alternative treatment options.

Ryan Owen

The opportunity to travel to Tempe, Arizona for the inaugural Evolutionary Medicine and Public Health Conference was certainly a highlight of my undergraduate career. It is very rare that undergraduate students get to be on the frontlines of any discipline with the men and women who are setting the pace in that field. Special thanks to Dr. Jim Smith for all of his efforts in making this possible.

One of the more intriguing talks I found was by Dr. Ruslan Medzhitov, a professor of immunobiology at Yale University. He spoke on the very broad issue of disease, and put it in an evolutionary context to offer a new approach to looking for cures to disease. He offered that there are two types of mechanisms that contribute to a healthy state: maintenance mechanisms and curing mechanisms. The former generally operate until they are not needed anymore, and this makes sense. Our lifespan has been defined by extrinsic mortality factors for our entire ancestral history, and therefore these maintenance programs have evolved accordingly. However, modern medicine has allowed humans to live far past ages that our bodies are evolved to, and these mechanisms are not adequately evolved to deal with the health consequences. What it boils down to is that we have to approach curing a disease by looking at it from an evolutionary perspective and understanding what is causing the disease state: is it a maintenance malfunction or a curing malfunction? Our bodies have evolved natural solutions to curing malfunctions that can be utilized by finding the right “button” and pushing it (statins, beta-blockers, etc.). If the disease does not have a defense that has naturally evolved (i.e., cancer), then we need to stop looking for curing mechanisms and start searching for ways to upregulate our maintenance mechanisms.

The entire experience was above and beyond what I had expected. The experiential highlight for me was being able to see Arizona for the first time. The trip was a great balance of academia and leisure, and it allowed for some exploration around a state I had never seen before. The learning went beyond the conference as I was able to take in a lot about the culture and the people through talking to locals, indulging in the cuisine, exploring the Desert Botanical Gardens, and hiking the incredible land formations. The trip was truly immersive in an academic and cultural sense, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had this opportunity.

Collin Stapleton-Reinhold

As a senior in college you think that your last year will be busy with getting ready for the next step in your life, whether that be finding a job, applying to grad school or just getting all your credits done to graduate. It can become stressful and anxiety filled. This trip to Arizona made that all go away in a really wonderful weekend and I would just like to thank Dr. Jim Smith for putting this trip together. Best Honors Option ever!

Being a part of this Evolutionary Medicine conference with so many well known speakers, I didn’t know what to expect. There were so many great presenters and so many different ideas in one room that it was all very exciting. The one presentation that I enjoyed the most was by Dr. Stefan Ruhl from the University at Buffalo. What stood out the most about this presenter was that he wasn’t your normal researcher. He was a dentist and his team was looking at the different kinds of proteins found in saliva in humans, chimps and gorillas. Even though they found many proteins that were linked in the same way throughout all three species, the interesting thing was they found multiple proteins that were different enough to be looked into further. They also found that comparably, human saliva is a lot more watery than chimp or gorilla saliva, which they reasoned might cause those species to be able to eat a more cellulose dense diet. In all, they found many different proteins that were different among all three species, which could indicate that saliva is a hot bed for evolution and that we should do more research in the field to see if those changes can be linked to any other evolutionary changes that we many have with our closest non-human relatives.

Overall this academic experience was amazing, but after sitting inside for the conference, it was nice to have a chance to sit in the sun. That’s why I loved how the directors of the conference had all of our meals outside and the spread was out of this world. You could fill up a plate and still not have gotten everything that they offered. If that wasn’t enough, after everything was over on the Friday night they had a little show for us. Baba Brinkman was a rapper who rapped about evolutionary medicine. It was spot on. To make things even more enjoyable, he had dancers come up for one of his songs and dance in front of everyone there for his show. After multiple shoves and nagging from my fellow Briggsies, I became one of the dancers and it is a memory I will never forget. In all, the best end to a great academic career at Michigan State University.