Friday, April 29, 2011

Tornado story: When search and rescue becomes search and recovery

It was about noon on Thursday, April 28, 2011, when Sarah Nafziger realized that she and her EMS colleagues were no longer likely to find people injured from the massive tornadoes that had ravaged Alabama the night before. The only people left to be found were the dead.

Nafziger is an emergency physician at UAB, and serves as medical director for several EMS units in the Birmingham area. On Wednesday evening, April 27, she watched the big twister move through Tuscaloosa and Pleasant Grove and when it passed, she hopped a ride on a Trussville fire truck to Pratt City. With first responders from around the area, she worked through the night to triage patients injured by the storm. She helped to coordinate the resources at hand: send paramedics here, they need more ambulances there.

By Thursday morning she was in Pleasant Grove.
"You couldn't recognize where you were," she recalls. "Was this a business district or a housing development? You couldn't tell."

The landscape was simply flat, bits of rubble, scoured by the 200 MPH winds of the killer storm. There were some walking wounded, those with minor injuries who had not yet sought treatment. Otherwise, their search and rescue mission had taken on the grimmer task of collecting the bodies of those the storm had claimed. She shared her story with the Wall Street Journal.

Nafziger praises the work of EMS crews after the storm. Departments from across the region came together to locate patients, provide first aid and arrange transport to appropriate hospitals. UAB hospital admitted 43 trauma patients, and nearly 100 other walking wounded were treated and released from the emergency department.

The mission began as rescue and moved to recovery. The task facing Birmingham, Jefferson County and all of Alabama now is to rebuild.

UAB students donate, volunteer to help tornado victims

UAB students are literally taking the clothes from their closets to help victims of Alabama's devastating April 27 storms. On Thursday, volunteers from eight UAB sorority and fraternity chapters in the National Pan-Hellenic Council collected items at Hill University Center. Students brought bottled water, new shoes, clean clothing, toiletries, food, comforters, household and medical supplies and more, to be delivered to Alabamians in dire need.

Brittany Williams, a senior, and graduate student Oladunni Oluwoyi, both members of Sigma Gamma Rho, manned the drop-off station, sorting items and packing boxes for delivery.

“The National Pan-Hellenic Council basically organized this within literally an hour,” Oluwoyi said. “They set up a table and had everybody come and volunteer and donate, either canned goods, clothing or any monetary items.” The NPHC also donated $200 as a whole to help with immediate need, she said. The supplies are being taken to Christian Services Mission, 3600 3rd Ave S.W. in Birmingham, for distribution.

Donations will again be accepted today at the Hill University Center, outside and inside, until 4 p.m. The effort is coordinated by Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority.

More than 430 students have so far volunteered to help through Blazers for Birmingham, the student effort to help with relief in the coming weeks. The group lists volunteer opportunities and other ways to help on their Facebook page.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

UAB Hospital hosts emergency blood drive Friday-Sunday for tornado victims

UAB Hospital is holding an emergency blood drive Friday, April 29, through Sunday, May 1, to help tornado victims. Collections will be accepted from noon-5 p.m. in the second-floor atrium of UAB Hospital's North Pavilion at the corner of 18th Street South and Sixth Avenue. Donors need to have a photo ID. Sascha Glassford with American Red Cross donor recruiting explains in this video.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

25 years after Chernobyl, lessons learned are applied in Fukushima

The explosion and fire in reactor No. 4 that wrecked the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant happened 25 years ago today. The reactor is still not completely sealed and Ukrainian officials remain in the process of building a huge permanent sarcophagus, at a cost of more than $780 million, that will be rolled over the damaged reactor building to finally seal it off.

The question is has any good come from the devastation of Chernobyl? It remains one of only two radiation incidents classified as a level seven event. The other? The Fukushima nuclear incidents following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan on March 11 of this year.

“Both disasters may be rated as level seven events,” say Norman Bolus, director of the UAB Nuclear Medicine Technology Program, “but Chernobyl is considered to be a much worse incident, perhaps 10 times worse, if only because lessons learned at Chernobyl have helped to temper the affects of the Japanese radiation spill.”

First, Bolus says, Japanese officials quickly began to evacuate people near the stricken nuke plant after the tsunami came ashore. Soviet officials (Ukraine was part of the USSR in 1986) waited a week before admitting there was an issue at Chernobyl, and this only after radiation monitors in Europe began reading dangerously high levels of radiation. Second, the Japanese are doing a good job of monitoring food, tap water and embargoing food in the area.

At Chernobyl, there was a delay in notification and monitoring which allowed humans to ingest radioisotopes from food harvested in the vicinity -- produce and milk -- that contributed to an increase in thyroid cancer in the area’s children some 10 years after the incident.

Dennis Kucik, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of pathology and a radiation safety expert, says we are always absorbing radiation from our environment, and the amounts registering in this country from Japan are very small. “I would compare this to our instruments' being able to detect an earthquake. We had no problem at all being able to detect the earthquake in Japan; on the other hand, your house isn't going to fall down from it," he says.

UAB’s Steve Becker, Ph.D., an associate professor of public health, who has had extensive on-site disaster experience working in Ukraine and Belarus on the continuing effects of the Chernobyl disaster, is currently part of a three-person team assembled to provide expert assistance in dealing with the ongoing nuclear emergency at Fukushima.

If you do wish to celebrate Chernobyl’s anniversary, you can now go there as a tourist. You can see a slice of life from the USSR in the mid 1980’s as people literally dropped what they were doing to flee, and were never allowed to go back. Bolus has a tip if you go. Take an old pair of shoes that you can leave behind, because even after 25 year, traipsing around the grounds of Chernobyl will leave radioactive isotopes on your shoes.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The royal wedding; a little fantasy for all of us?

For the past several months it has been hard to pick up an entertainment magazine or catch a news broadcast without at least a mention of the upcoming royal wedding extravaganza.

On April 29th at precisely 11 a.m., Prince William of Wales will marry Miss Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey. The question is why has there been such a media blitz of the event in the United States when they're not even our royalty?

"The royal wedding is a true-life manifestation of childhood fantasy. All the kings and queens and princes and princesses come to life and for one day, fantasy and reality get mixed. It grabs our attention," explains Josh Klapow, Ph.D., a UAB psychologist.


"The visual spectacle is important in and of itself. The aesthetics, the beauty - it is an event that simply speaks to the highest levels of luxury. It shows a wedding with no budget restrictions and that in some ways speaks to the materialistic fantasies of Americans," says Klapow.

Ah, yes. A blow-out wedding. That's appealing. Especially if you could crash it. But while most of us will never experience an event of this capacity for ourselves, Klapow points out it is a good distraction from all the bad news in the media.

"In times of crisis, we need a break," he says. We've had plenty of crisis (see Charlie Sheen's crazy train). "The emotional drain of the world's problems has a global taxing effect. The royal wedding is an opportunity to close our eyes, leave the daily grind and the stress of the world, and become engaged in what our childhood dreams are made of."

This unique event will be broadcast worldwide on television, internet (via the "Royal Channel live stream, natch") and radio. Estimates are that two BILLION people will tune in for the coverage, which, in the U.S., will begin as early as 4 a.m. ET. You might want to take your royal wedding with a princely-sized cup o' joe.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

UAB forensic scientist sorts through oil to investigate BP spill

Today marks one year since the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And while some people are trying to forget what happened, one UAB professor is working to relive those moments in order to get answers.

Elizabeth Gardner, Ph.D., forensic scientist and associate professor of justice sciences, is investigating whether the contamination of the Gulf coastline is solely the result of the BP spill or includes oil from other sources. These include natural seepage, runoff from land pipeline spills and oil tanker leaks. There are also rumors that some took advantage of the oil spill and dumped into the waters during that time, she said. Gardner is working to determine what oil is coming from which source.

The UAB Gulf Oil Response Initiative funded 16 university projects for a total $308,344. Gardner and collaborator Asim Bej, Ph.D., received $18,500 to study the response of oil-degrading bacteria as a consequence of the spill. She began her investigation in February.

Gardner and her team collected samples from the coastline and are now conducting a chemical analysis to see if what they have matches up with the BP oil. They use an instrument called a gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy (GC/MS) to determine the composition of their samples. The gas chromatography separates the components of the samples — oil is made of a delicate balance of hundreds of components — and mass spectroscopy identifies them.

Gardner is looking for biomarkers that are characteristic of the oil. If the biomarkers in the sample do not match the ones in the BP source oil, it originates from somewhere else, she said.

"This is a long-term project,” she continued. “Identifying the oil is only the first step. Remediation of a spill could take 10 to 25 years. This is why enhancing natural processes such as bioremediation are so important."

Other universities are conducting their own investigations of the BP spill, including the Louisiana State University, Gardner said.

“It’s gratifying to address a current issue,” she said. “A lot of science is basic and far removed from application. This is applicable to the entire community.”

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What's in your genes?

Do you want to know what's in your genes? The unraveling of the human genome and new technologies that make it easier to screen DNA have made genetic testing a reality. Now here's a debate - who do you trust to do that test? Genetic test kits are now commercially available. Buy a kit online, swab some DNA from your mouth or nose and send it in to the company. They'll send you the results. But, genetic experts say, there are results, and then there are results.

Bruce Korf, M.D., Ph.D., is the chair of the Department of Genetics at UAB. He weighed in on the debate in the Los Angeles Times on April 18th, in a story that paper published looking at both sides of the argument."Do-it-yourself DNA testing: A risk or a right?"

Korf says DNA testing should be left to medical professionals, because the answers derived from testing are not always cut and dried, not always black and white. It takes a trained genetics professional to understand the gray. The Times quotes Korf's argument against do-it-yourself testing: "First, people could make decisions about their health based on information that they have incorrectly interpreted. Because of their test results, they may want to pursue invasive or expensive interventions, ranging from imaging studies to blood tests, when their risk for disease is actually very modest. "

He goes on to say, "Other people might mistakenly think they are protected from disease and modify their behavior in a negative way. For instance, someone who finds out that he is at decreased risk for type 2 diabetes might decide that losing weight and exercising isn't important for him anymore, so he changes his lifestyle in a way that could still lead to diabetes."
Technology is wonderful and it has led to many beneficial advances in human health and well-being. But just because we can do something such as home DNA testing doesn't mean we should be doing it. Not without understanding the nuances and variables that go along with it. And that's something best left to the pros.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

On the night shift; what's goin on with nurses' circadian rhythms?

Photo: Troy Simpkins, Vanderbilt University

Ever work the night shift? It takes some getting used to. Most night shift workers just can’t take a nap on the job (unless they are air traffic controllers, apparently). Take nurses. They need to be awake and alert. Now research from a UAB assistant professor of psychiatry, done while she was at Vanderbilt, shows that 25 percent of hospital nurses skip sleep for as many as 24 hours while trying to adjust to a night shift. That strategy, says Karen Gamble, Ph.D., is not very effective.

Studies have shown that disruptions of circadian rhythms -- when sleep wake patterns are out of sync with a biological clock -- have been associated with cardiovascular, metabolic and gastrointestinal disorders. There is evidence that sleep disruptions might affect cancer and mental disorders

Most hospital nurses work 12 hour shifts and bounce back and forth on different sleep cycles. The Vandy study was based on responses from 388 nurses, and was published in the April 13 issue of Public Library of Science One. The researchers identified five different strategies that most nurses employed to manage preparing for a night shift, from skipping sleep to maintaining a night shift even on their off days.

The researchers suggest hospitals cut down on the number of times that nurses have to bounce back and forth from day to night living.

Art and community meet at ArtPlay ArtDay this Saturday

On Saturday April 16, ArtPlay, Birmingham’s new home for arts education, will celebrate its grand opening with ArtPlay ArtDay, a free, community open house so everyone can come and explore the beautifully restored Victorian home at 1006 19th St. South.

The family-fun event will feature live music by favorite local performers, including the UAB Steel Drum Band— so be sure to wear your boogie shoes, because no one can sit still when they play their springy, island melodies. There also will be free food and drinks, interactive class demonstrations, creative kids’ activities and chances to win great prizes, such as the ArtPlay class of your choice, tickets to events at the Alys Stephens Center and more.

But the first thing folks should make a point to see when they arrive Saturday is ArtPlay’s newest addition: a brightly colored, kinetic sculpture created by Washington, D.C.-based sculptor Kevin Reese and about 220 of his newest friends, Birmingham area school children. Reese visited ArtPlay as part of his School Sculpture Residency Project.

The sculpture, now permanently installed in ArtPlay’s back garden, was built last week when Reese was in residency at ArtPlay. The kids, working in shifts, helped Reese from start to finish: designing, drawing, cutting and sanding, painting, assembling and installing. Check out the video below, which shows the process from start to triumphant finish, then be sure to visit and see it for yourself.

ArtPlay is a sister complex for the Alys Stephens Center and was made possible through a gift from Jane Stephens Comer. ArtPlay offers classes, workshops, residencies and events. Its mission is to educate, inspire and nurture creative growth and self-expression for everyone by providing innovative programming in a collaborative and holistic environment. ArtPlay offers something for everyone, from toddlers to adults, and they have an array of first-class studios for dance, acting, visual arts, music production and more.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

They’ve got spirit (and a video to prove it)! UAB cheerleaders are on YouTube

The UAB Cheerleaders recently launched a promotional video on YouTube that shows them piercing through the air with sky-high flips, spins and jumps. David Gilliland, UAB Spirit Coordinator, rounded them up on the Green not long ago and shot the video using his iPhone 4.

It’ll be used it for recruitment and to show off their tumbling skills. This year, the team placed sixth in the Universal Cheerleading Association national competition. But, Gilliland said, at the rate they’re going, they have a good chance of taking home the top prize next year.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Power tools, physics and geometry add up at ArtPlay

Students are coming to the UAB Alys Stephens Center’s ArtPlay house for arts education this week, but they’re getting more than they bargained for — they’re learning a lot about math, physics and power tools, too. The students are working in shifts with sculptor Kevin Reese, founder of the School Sculpture Project. He’s spending a week-long residency at ArtPlay, building an original, kinetic sculpture which will adorn the back garden.

The students, from Ramsay, Simmons, Hope Christian, Cornerstone, Phillips and Mountain Brook, have been involved from the beginning: they submitted designs and Reese created the model by incorporating various elements. The students are helping him cut, sand, paint, assemble and install the piece, made of wood and aluminum. Reese teaches the students the best way to accomplish each step: calculating the length each piece of wood should be, measuring the angles, drilling holes, painting with maximum efficiency and less mess. He’s teaching them how to handle power tools, to be safe while working and what principals of physics come into play in a sculpture.

Reese also presented to students a one-man play, “A Perfect Balance,” on stage at the Alys Stephens Center. Inspired by the work of American artist Alexander Calder, the inventor of the mobile, the play follows a young artist on his quest to capture his vision of life. Challenged by his father to create a “masterpiece,” he playfully experiments with drawing, painting and sculpting, accompanied by his puppet-like creations. Only when the young artist risks taking his shapes off the page does he find his way to the show’s awesome conclusion -- a mobile, 17 feet across, that suspends into the audience.

Reese has installed 89 sculptures, both indoor and outdoor, in 19 states. The sculpture at ArtPlay will be his first in Alabama. On Friday, April 8, everyone is invited to join the students and artist at 2 p.m. at ArtPlay for the unveiling of this piece of artwork and to congratulate the students who made it happen. Next week we’ll follow up with video of the project. To learn more about Reese’s School Sculpture Project, visit

Friday, April 1, 2011

Egg drop: not just for soup (especially after falling 3 stories)

Coffee cans, Styrofoam cups, cardboard boxes, straws, cotton balls and duct tape.

They all have one thing in common: used in the correct way, in the correct amount, and in some combination, they keep a raw egg dropped three stories from breaking.

Nearly 250 students from 12 middle and high schools from around central Alabama today put on their engineer hats and came up with some creative egg-saving designs for the annual Brent Newman Memorial Egg Drop Contest at the UAB School of Engineering.

The kids, their teachers and chaperons gathered on the School's lawn to watch as mechanical engineering students slung the salmonella savers three stories to a waiting blue tarp. We can't say the tarp was without gooey smashed egg remnants, but an impressive number of eggs survived.

So, how did they figure out who won, since so many eggs endured the free fall?

The judging criteria for the devices the kids created was fairly simple. First, the egg had to survive the fall intact. In addition, contestants were judged on the weight of their device - the lighter, the better - creativity, and the ease with which the egg was loaded into the device. Styrofoam pellets, bubble packing wrap, parachutes and balloons were not allowed.

Middle school division winners were:
High school division winners were:
Middle and high schools participating in the event included Bessemer Academy, East Lawrence High School, Anniston High School, Oak Grove High School, Erwin High School, Gardendale High School, Northside High School, Westminster School at Oak Mountain, Montevallo High School, R.F. Bumpus Middle School, Highlands School and Berry Middle School.

This was the 22nd Brent Newman Memorial Egg Drop Contest. The UAB student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers presents the event each year to encourage the next generation of engineers and to provide college students the opportunity to interact with the community. Since 2000 the contest has been named for Newman, a Birmingham native who suffered from a rare form of leukemia, granulocystic sarcoma. Despite his illness, Brent completed his studies and carried the School of Engineering banner at commencement ceremonies in December 1996. He died six months later.