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X Marks the spot: Researchers embrace chaos at TEDxCharleston
Dawn Brazell | MUSC News Center | April 21, 2015

Photo by Fia Forever Photography

Dr. Sundaravadivel Balasubramanian takes his place on the red dot as the first of the three MUSC faculty who made their debut at this year's TEDxCharleston talks. 

This should be no problem. Smile. Stay on the red dot. Breathe.

These are some of the directions posted backstage that three researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina ponder before making their debut on the TEDxCharleston stage where this year’s theme is to “Embrace Chaos.”

Dawn Brazell
Drs. Sundaravadivel Balasubramanian, Hal May and Peter Tuerk 

Michael Schmidt, Ph.D., a microbiologist at MUSC, paces in the background. “I’m like a nervous parent pacing behind the scenes,” he jokes during a break.

Schmidt, who was the first MUSC faculty member to do a TEDxCharleston talk, knows what it’s like. “Ten minutes to convey a complex and life altering idea is very challenging. To do it with data and authority is next to impossible. The TED process makes the impossible, possible.”  

Part of that process is working with speech coaches, unfamiliar terrain for many scientists and clinicians. It’s something Schmidt hopes to change and one reason he volunteers to be a TEDxCharleston coach. He was instrumental in recruiting speakers for this year’s event. Of the 16 speakers, three came from MUSC.

It’s no small undertaking. Schmidt estimates it takes about 200 hours worth of work to prepare for the short talks where experts have to crystallize their ideas into captivating sound bites.

This year’s speakers nail it.

The Science of Yogic Breathing

Sundaravadivel Balasubramanian, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology, is the first of the three onto the stage. He tells how he blends his modern biochemistry background with the ancient traditions he learned growing up in India, where he studied yoga with his father and other relatives.

He has the crowd take a deep breath and hum, one of the simplest techniques. The packed auditorium at the Charleston Music Hall fills with a chorus of oms. “Now, you’ve learned one yogic breathing technique, and you’re one step closer to your better health.”

Balasubramanian knows this because he measures compounds found in saliva of those who practice it and has seen how the breathing potentially increases anti-inflammatory biomarkers.

“It is not just a digestive fluid. It has proteins, hormones and growth factor – and so on. One of them was nerve growth factor, which is a protein that helps the nerve cells, neurons, to grow, withstand stress and live longer.”

Adam Chandler
Dr. Sundaravadivel Balasubramanian fields questions during a discussion break. 

Yogic breathing has another benefit. Minding the breath helps control the mind. “We all want to control our minds, but controlling the mind is not easy. As the Eastern philosophy puts it, ‘Mind is a monkey.’ It’s not a normal monkey. It’s crazy. It’s like a drunken monkey, stung by a scorpion.”

The crowd laughs, and some participants tweet the comment. This is one reason Balasubramanian and others take the time to do this. The TEDx platform, which posts videos of its speakers, offers an international platform to spread a message.

If something so simple as yogic breathing can enhance health, he wants people to know about it. It’s why he makes time for community outreach programs, and he jumped at the chance to do the TEDx talk, he says. “These activities are as important as scientific meetings and conferences.”

Researchers can communicate their ideas and key messages to the general public, not only for potential funding support, but to raise health and scientific literacy.

Lightning, CO2 and a Microbe Walk into a Bar

That’s one reason that has Hal May, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology and immunology at MUSC who has a laboratory at the Hollings Marine Lab, walking onto stage with a beer. His talk titled, “Lightning, COand a microbe walk into a bar,” isn’t what he typically presents at a scientific conference, but it hit just the right note with the TEDxCharleston crowd.

May is investigating a new field of environmental research: How microbes use carbon dioxide and electricity to make fuels and chemicals. “Let’s talk about the crazy long shots in science,” May says, at the start of his talk. “Why they are not so crazy, and why they are actually so important.

He gives the crowd a primer on microbes, which can make people sick or well. “And they can also make lots of different things - like the beer I brought out here for example. We can get those little tiny things to make beer, cheeses, wine. We can also get them to produce antibiotics and other drugs, energy.”

At one time all of those things were long shots, he says.

It turns out that in the process of bioprospecting for just the right microbes, local breweries proved to be a gold mine. “It’s not the yeast that makes the yummy stuff. No, this is going out back - the smelly, stinky stuff that comes out after everything else is done. You have to wash the tanks out and all the good leftover natural chemicals go out back into a cistern and the bacteria turns it into CO2 that bubbles out.”

 Hal May Tedx
Stan Foxworthy
 Dr. Hal May explores the wonders of long shots in science in his TEDxCharleston talk.

May and other scientists fascinated by microbial physiology and ecology asked the question: Can you take electricity, add that as energy, push that CO2 reaction the other direction and make valuable chemicals and fuel? The answer is yes, he explains.

“You dip your electrode down into this mess, and you can pull the organisms out because the ones who can do this, they are attracted to this energy source. They are attracted to this electrode just like flies to the light.”

Researchers pull out the microorganisms and have managed to produce different chemicals, such as hydrogen, methane, formic acid and acetic acids. “We ordinarily make those chemicals from fossil fuels. They are valuable commodity chemicals. We’ve gone from science fiction to science fact.”

Researchers are studying what else can be made since bacteria are capable of millions of other reactions. They can produce many more things.

“We’ve now reached the point where this is potentially the ultimate recycling machine. If we consume whatever we’re using - that turns into CO2. We can feed it back to the microbes in the reactor and start to make different chemicals.”

May describes doing the TEDx talk as intense and eye-opening. One of his favorite parts is the discussion period during lunch where he gets to meet people from all walks of life. One of his goals is to stimulate discussion and curiosity about what is happening on the frontiers of science.

“I’m not asking that you become a geeky scientist and play around in smelly stuff," he says as he ends his talk. "But I do ask that you pay attention to what is going on in science today - what is going on in science in the future, the value of pure scientific research, especially when it comes around to the long crazy long shots. And then find a way to open up your hearts and your minds to supporting such research.”

Return from Chaos – Treating PTSD

Peter Tuerk, Ph.D., echoes that sentiment.

A director of the PTSD program at the Ralph Johnson VA Medical Center, Tuerk also is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at MUSC. His goal is to educate the audience about post-traumatic stress disorder, which is not well understood by the general public or by many in the medical professions.

He describes it as a blessing to be able to help veterans and others who may suffer from the disorder, which is marked by three main components.

“Typically people get re-experiencing symptoms in the form of vivid intrusive memories and nightmares of the traumatic event. This in turn leads to immediate physiological and emotional arousal, which leads to immediate avoidance.” 

Humans have ‘a gravity to process’ emotional information, but when they can’t, their bodies don’t know what to do with the information and keep it on a loop. Memories are intentionally pushed away, he says.

“This avoidance is absolutely understandable, but it prevents the event from being processed and put away. It’s kind of like having a sock sticking out of a drawer.  The memory remains easily accessible and queued up at times, when perhaps it shouldn’t be. Having this traumatic memory always in the queue makes it difficult for people to feel safe in almost any situation.” 

 Dr. Peter Tuerk
Adam Chandler
 Dr. Peter Tuerk explains the impacts of PTSD.

PTSD involves an intense emotional event that can’t be processed and placed into a mental ‘file folder’ that helps to make sense of the world.

“Like anti-matter touches matter and annihilates it, this little bit of unprocessed chaos bouncing around in us destroys or seriously undermines our natural and necessary assumptions about the way the world works and who we are in it."

Luckily, PTSD is a highly treatable condition through prolonged exposure therapy. Tuerk is involved in running clinical trials and looking for ways to make the therapy accessible to more people suffering from PTSD, including using telehealth and mobile applications.

“Exposure therapy gives people the opportunity in a safe, supportive and expert environment to approach their traumatic memories and avoidance situations for a long enough period of time for the hot potato to cool. Once the potato cools, and it’s not associated with immediate and intense reactions, you can pick it up, examine it, make a folder and put it away.”

Traumatic memories will never be positive, but approaching them repeatedly until they lose their power gives people control over the memories or fear of certain situations that might trigger the memories.

Tuerk says researchers know it’s effective because they measure patients’ distress levels through objective, physiologic, wireless assessments. Having visual proof of getting better is wonderful positive re-enforcement for engaging in a treatment that’s difficult but highly effective, he says.

Prolonged exposure therapy is not new or experimental and works for a wide range of traumas and individuals, yet it’s still not being used as widely as it should. “We have a treatment that we know works and all major mental health guidelines suggest its use as a front-line treatment for PTSD, yet it is not widely available at all points of care so we have a lot of work to do, and we can’t do it alone.”

His call to action: “Help us spread the word that PTSD is a highly treatable condition and that prolonged exposure therapy can be the first stop on the road to recovery. Now knowledge impacts expectations, and my hope is you know enough to expect your life back.”

Science Ambassadors

Schmidt says all three speakers did an incredible job of getting their messages out, from May’s message of hope, encouraging the next generation to think big - for nothing is impossible when humans enlist the help of microbes - to Balasubramanian’s message that by simply paying attention to our breathing we can all feel better, and potentially stave off all sorts of maladies that are plaguing modern humans.

Dr. Schmidt
Sarah Pack
Dr. Michael Schmidt 

“Tuerk had such a tremendous message - it is not only possible to treat PTSD, but there is overwhelming evidence that people with this life-altering affliction can quickly become better.”

The intent of TED is to stimulate discussion, so any time scientists and clinicians can raise awareness of how they can help, it is time well spent, he says.

“They each had a wondrous story to tell, highlighting the wonder that their work offers to those in need.  We often take for granted why we do what we do -  it’s always good to be reminded that we work for everyone and what happens in our labs and clinics has far-reaching effects beyond the corridors of MUSC and the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.”  



  Related Video

Ted X charleston
The science of yogic breathing (Sundaravadivel Balasubramanian)

Lightning, CO2 and a microbe walk into a bar (Harold May)

Return from chaos: Treating PTSD (Peter Tuerk)

TEDxCharleston Photo Gallery

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