1. The Magic of Used Sports Equipment?

Would using Babe Ruth's bat make you a better hitter?

Would you hit better if you could use Babe Ruth’s bat? Would you serve more aces if you could use Martina Navratilova’s tennis racket? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Charles Lee (Col ’09) and Sally Linkenauger (Col ’04, Grad ’11) found that golfers putted better when they believed the putter they were using belonged to a celebrity golfer. The subjects of the psychology experiment were 41 avid golfers who tried putting on a small mat. Half were told they were using a really good putter. The others were told—untruthfully—that their putter had belonged to Ben Curtis, a player on the PGA Tour known for his putting. All the golfers were familiar with Curtis, who won the 2003 British Open. Hitting 10 putts, those who used the celebrity putter sank an average of one and half more golf balls than the other group. “If I could tell you I could increase your ability by a putt and a half for 10 putts, a lot of golfers would be ecstatic about that,” says Linkenauger. Why did that happen? The researchers aren’t sure. A placebo effect might improve performance. Imagining Ben Curtis’ skills might help inspire a good putt. Either way, in a field where confidence is key, every little bit helps.

2. “Vampire” Bacteria

I vant to suck your ... germs?

Imagine a microscopic creature that attaches to the germs that are making you sick and drains them of essential nutrients. Imagine it’s harmless to your other cells. Imagine a living antibiotic that, with some genetic tinkering, could be used for a range of infectious diseases. A bacterium called Micavibrio aeruginosavorus has just that potential. UVA biology professor Martin Wu and graduate student Zhang Wang (Grad ’14) have decoded its genome. Unlike most other bacteria, which draw nutrients from their surroundings, M. aeruginosavorus can survive and propagate only by drawing its nutrition from specific prey bacteria. One bacterium it targets is Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which is a chief cause of serious lung infections in cystic fibrosis patients. M. aeruginosavorus is a selective feeder, so it’s harmless to the thousands of beneficial bacteria that dwell in the human body. Wu notes that traditional antibiotics, which inhibit bacteria propagation or interfere with cell wall formation, have created resistant strains of many pathogens that are increasingly difficult to treat. He says that new approaches are necessary for attacking pathogens without building up their resistance. “Pathologists may eventually be able to use this bacterium to fight fire with fire, so to speak,” says Wu, “as a bacterium that will aggressively hunt for and attack certain other bacteria that are extremely harmful to humans.”

3. Less Fat, More Risk

Overweight patients are less likely to die after surgery than thin patients.

Extra pounds are often associated with health problems, but a new study bucks the trend. Heavier patients are less likely to die after surgery than thin patients. The study found that thin people have a 40 percent higher risk of mortality within 30 days of an operation than overweight people. Researchers examined data from 190,000 people who underwent surgery and compared their mortality rates with their body mass index (BMI). The death rate among people with BMIs of less than 23.1 (normal-to-thin) was 2.8 percent compared to 1 percent among people whose BMI was 35.3 or higher (obese). Lead researcher George Stukenborg, an associate professor of public health sciences at UVA, says, “Unfortunately, our research does not shed any light on why BMI is a risk factor for mortality. This is an interesting question, though, and something we should think more about.” Sidebar: BMI is calculated using both height and weight; it is a good indicator of how much of your body is composed of fat. Calculate your BMI here.

4. Motherhood vs. Money

How does motherhood timing impact your career?

When is the best time to have children? Your mother-in-law has her opinions. Doctors have health recommendations. And economists have data on how motherhood timing affects women’s careers. Over the past several decades, American women have made dramatic gains in the workforce. And they’ve been having children later. Amalia R. Miller, associate professor in economics, found that each year that a woman delays having a baby leads to a 9 percent increase in earnings on average. Later mothers are paid more for their time and work more hours than women who have children earlier. This effect is largest among college-educated women and those in professional and managerial occupations. Even before either group has children, women who have children later tend to earn more than those who have them early. By 35, late mothers tend to earn more than both earlier mothers and childless women. Women who return to work after childbearing tend to face penalties in wage and experience, although women who return to the same company after childbearing see fewer losses. So when’s the best time to have children? Maybe your mother-in-law will give you a loan if you explain the situation to her.

5. Earthquake Early Warning

Animals' instincts might help us devise an early-warning system for earthquakes.

How might animals be able to tell an earthquake is coming? Raúl A. Baragiola, a UVA professor of engineering physics, wondered if it might be because they’re sensitive to changing levels of ozone. Before an earthquake, pressure builds in geological faults, and this pressure fractures rocks. Could fracturing rocks create a measurable increase in ozone? Baragiola and his collaborators, UVA research scientist Catherine Dukes (Engr ’94) and visiting student Dawn Hedges, set up experiments crushing or drilling into different igneous and metamorphic rocks, including granite, basalt, gneiss, rhyolite and quartz. Different rocks produced different amounts of ozone; rhyolite produced the strongest ozone emission. If future research warrants, Baragiola says, a series of detectors could be set up to monitor fluctuations in ozone released from fractured rocks. “Such an array, located away from areas with high levels of ground ozone, could be useful for giving early warning to earthquakes.”

6. Scared? Turn on a light

Light and dark affect anxiety.

Light, or the lack of it, affects our brains in many ways. It influences our moods, sleep patterns and digestion. A new study indicates that it may also lessen fear and anxiety. UVA professors Brian Wiltgen, Ignacio Provencio and Daniel Warthen designed an experiment using mice—who, unlike humans, are nocturnal and thus are more comfortable in darkness than light. The researchers cued their mice with a minute-long tone that was followed two seconds later by a quick, mild electrical shock. The mice learned to associate the tone with the shock and quickly became conditioned to duck down and remain motionless when they heard the tone, in the same way they would if a predator appeared.

The researchers found that the brighter the ambient light, the greater fear reaction the mice had to the tone. “We showed that light itself does not necessarily enhance fear, but more light enhances learned fear,” says Wiltgen. “It may be similar to a person learning to be more fearful in the dark.” How might this new information help people? “Increased light can be used to reduce fear and anxiety and to treat depression,” says Wiltgen. “If we can come to understand the cellular mechanisms that affect this, then eventually abnormal anxiety and fear might be treated with improved pharmaceuticals to mimic or augment light therapy.”