Globalization raises new ethical questions

Eric Gregory

Eric Gregory, a professor of religion, studies our obligations to strangers in a world of ever-growing connectedness.
(Photo by Brian Dorsey)

As strangers become more accessible to us through global markets and new media, so too do questions of our obligations to them. For Eric Gregory, who examines religious and philosophical ethics, our ever-growing connectedness to people around the world has necessitated a closer look at how and why we should help those in need.

“We have all sorts of relationships to our family, our friends, our fellow citizens,” he said. “Is it justified to show preference to family and friends in terms of how you treat them versus the person with whom you don’t have that kind of relationship? How do we think about those who might be suffering in terms of more distant relations?”

Gregory, a professor of religion, explained that Christian theologians such as St. Augustine have tackled the question of what people owe strangers in their writings, but lived in a time when strangers were far more distant than they are at present. Today, an individual can plausibly interact not just with their next-door neighbor, or with someone one village over, but with an entire globe. Yet global realities such as nationalism and religion can impose constraints on our dealings with others whom we have yet to meet, Gregory said. This tension, he explained, means we now need to balance our understanding of concern for distant others with the particularity of our relations with more immediate communities.

The calculus is a complex one, and the debate typically centers on efficiency. But Gregory, with support from The Tikvah Center for Law & Jewish Civilization at New York University School of Law and the National Endowment for the Humanities, is examining classical texts by authors from the religious and secular traditions to move past a utilitarian approach for investigating the question. “I think one of the virtues or hopes of the humanities is that there’s an ongoing conversation about how best to live a life,” he said.

-By Tara Thean

Small RNAs fight cancer’s spread

Tumor cells spread toward bone

Breast cancer cells (right) spread toward the hindlimb bone (left), using natural bone-destroying cells (osteoclasts) to continue their advance. (Image courtesy of Yibin Kang)

Cancer patients may benefit from a dual strategy for tackling their disease in a class of molecules called microRNAs. Molecular biology graduate student Brian Ell has revealed that microRNAs — small bits of genetic material capable of repressing the expression of certain genes — may serve as both therapeutic targets and predictors of metastasis, or a cancer’s spread from its initial site to other parts of the body.

MicroRNAs are specifically useful for tackling bone metastasis, which occurs in about 70 percent of late-stage cancer patients. During bone metastasis, tumors invade the tightly regulated bone environment and take over the osteoclasts, cells that break down bone material. These cells then go into overdrive and dissolve the bone far more quickly than they would during normal bone turnover, leading to bone lesions and ultimately pathological conditions such as fracture, nerve compression and extreme pain.

“The tumor uses the osteoclasts as forced labor,” explained cancer metastasis expert in the Department of Molecular Biology Yibin Kang, who is Ell’s adviser. Their research is supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, the Brewster Foundation and the Champalimaud Foundation.

MicroRNAs can reduce that forced labor by inhibiting osteoclast proteins and thus limiting the number of osteoclasts present, as Kang’s lab observed when mice with bone metastasis injected with microRNAs developed significantly fewer bone lesions. Their findings suggest that microRNAs could be effective treatment targets for tackling bone metastasis. And that’s not all: microRNAs may also help doctors detect the cancer’s spread to the bone, with trials in human patients demonstrating a strong correlation between elevated levels of another group of microRNAs and the occurrence of bone metastasis.

Kang, the Warner-Lambert/Parke- Davis Professor of Molecular Biology, said he ultimately hopes to extend mice experimentation to clinical trials. “In the end, we want to help the patients,” he said.

–By Tara Thean

Fragile families, fragile children

Sara McLanahan

Sara McLanahan is the principal investigator on the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which found that children of unmarried parents encounter a great deal of instability. (Photo by Larry Levanti)

Relationships are complicated in the best of times, but even more so for unmarried parents and their children. Children born to unmarried parents encounter considerable instability in their family life when their biological parents end relationships and form relationships with new partners, according to data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, an initiative spearheaded by family demography expert in the Woodrow Wilson School Sara McLanahan.

The study found that just over a third of unmarried parents who are romantically involved at birth are still together by the time their child is 5 years old, compared to 80 percent of married parents. More than 60 percent of unmarried mothers have by then also changed residential partners — that is, had one or more new partners move in or out of the household.

Children encounter an even wider cast of characters if researchers take account of mothers’ more casual dating partnerships, with more than 75 percent of unmarried mothers experiencing a change in either a co-residential or short-term dating relationship. Half-siblings are also part of the picture: nearly 50 percent of children born to unmarried mothers live with a half-sibling by the time they reach age 5.

“The bottom line is that very few children born to unmarried parents are living in stable single-mother families,” said McLanahan, the William S. Tod Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs. The Fragile Families study is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and several foundations.

That unmarried parents are more likely to have low education and income levels means that their children often fare worse as well, reporting more physical and mental health problems. Children of unmarried parents also tend to score lower on reading and math tests. McLanahan explained that while economic adversity accounts for much of this disadvantage, a high level of instability and family complexity may contribute to these negative outcomes.

–By Tara Thean

Higgs boson, confirmed

Several Princeton faculty members and students were directly involved in the search for the once-elusive particle known as the Higgs boson. Last March, physicists at the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider on the border of France and Switzerland, presented the best evidence yet for the detection of the particle, which is thought to be essential for giving mass to the universe and was the subject of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics.

-By Catherine Zandonella

Princeton establishes strategic partnerships with three universities

University of São Paulo campus

The University of São Paulo is one of three institutions with which Princeton has formed new partnerships. (Photo courtesy of the University of São Paulo.)

Princeton has established strategic partnerships with the University of Tokyo, the University of São Paulo and Humboldt University in Berlin. The agreements expand upon the many institutional partnerships already in place including faculty fellowships, student exchanges and study abroad programs. Individual faculty initiatives will be the driving force behind the development of projects.

-By Karin Dienst

Quantum computing moves forward

New technologies that exploit quantum behavior for computing and other applications are closer than ever to being realized due to recent advances. These advances could enable the creation of immensely powerful computers as well as other applications, such as highly sensitive detectors capable of probing biological systems.

“We are really excited about the possibilities of new semiconductor materials and new experimental systems that have become available in the last decade,” said Jason Petta, a quantum information scientist and an associate professor of physics at Princeton, who collaborated with Andrew Houck, an associate professor of electrical engineering, on a study published in Nature in October 2012 describing a method for quick and reliable transfer of quantum information throughout a computing device.

Support for the research was provided by the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Packard Foundation, the Army Research Office, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Quantum Entanglement Science and Technology Program.

–By Catherine Zandonella

Princeton role in federal BRAIN initiative

Princeton neuroscientists are poised to play a leading role in revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain as outlined in President Barack Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, announced in April 2013. David Tank, co-director of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute (PNI) and the Henry L. Hillman Professor in Molecular Biology, was named a member of the steering committee appointed to lay out the scientific strategy for the project.

–By Catherine Zandonella

Immigration policy is ripe for reform

Marta Tienda

Marta Tienda, an immigration policy expert at Princeton’s
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, has found that the
number of older immigrants is on the rise. (Photo by Larry Levanti)

Family unification provisions enacted in the 1960s have contributed to population aging in the United States, according to an analysis by Marta Tienda, an immigration and policy expert at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

In research presented at two Population Association of America annual meetings in 2012 and 2013, Tienda found that the 1965 Amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which exempted parents of naturalized and native-born U.S. citizens from annual immigration caps, have led to an increase in late-age immigration over the last three decades.

Parents represented nearly one quarter of the 475,000 exempt-sponsored relatives in 2010, compared to only 11 percent of the 81,000 admitted in 1971, according to Tienda, the Maurice P. During Professor in Demographic Studies. The rise in late-age immigration stems both from the 1965 parental exemption provisions and from provisions that allow naturalized citizens and legal permanent residents to sponsor extended-family relatives.

The findings suggest that policymakers should consider age and its economic and social consequences in crafting immigration policy — especially in light of rising health care costs and the challenges seniors face in qualifying for private health insurance, Tienda said. Her work is funded by the National Institutes of Health through Princeton’s Demography of Aging Center.

“People think of the sentimental part,” Tienda said, referring to family reunification. “This fact of late-age immigration has not gotten a lot of attention.”

–By Tara Thean

Big hair brings to life a 17th-century satire

Bigwig character photo

Gary Fox, Class of 2013, played the title role in Der Bourgeois Bigwig. In the background is Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn, Class of 2016, as the enthusiastic lackey. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Extravagant wigs and sumptuous costumes serve as metaphors that breathe life into the social satire of Der Bourgeois Bigwig, a new adaptation of a 17th-century comedy by Molière that pokes fun at both the pretentious middle-class and the snobbish aristocracy.

A production of Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts and the Department of Music, Der Bourgeois Bigwig tells the story of a wealthy merchant who aspires to become an aristocrat, but who only succeeds in looking foolish and falling prey to con artists. The adaptation was created by playwright James Magruder, who served during 2012-13 as Princeton’s Class of 1932 Visiting Lecturer in Theater, and is based on Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme as well as a 1912 musical version by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Der Bürger als Edelmann.

Performed for the first time in fall 2012, the play was directed by Tim Vasen, director of the Program in Theater. Michael Pratt, director of the Program in Musical Performance, conducted the Princeton University Orchestra. Performed by an all-student cast, the Bigwig production was also a credited course, taught by Vasen.

“Our production was a 21st-century English language version of an early- 20th-century German musical adaptation of a late-17th-century French play,” said Vasen. “Yet, the story, the themes, the satire and jabs at pretense to a higher perceived social class resonate as vividly today as they did over 300 years ago.”

The title role was played by Gary Fox, Class of 2013, who earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry with certificates in French and theater. His classmate, Lily Akerman, who earned her bachelor’s degree in comparative literature with certificates in creative writing and theater, choreographed the production. New York-based designer Anya Klepikov created the set and costumes, with lighting design by Jane Cox, a lecturer in theater and the Lewis Center for the Arts.

-By Steve Runk

First Princeton-Fung Global Forum held in Shanghai

Shanghai skyline

Shanghai skyline (Photo by Dan Day)

Architects, engineers and other scholars gathered in February in Shanghai for the inaugural Princeton-Fung Global Forum to discuss population growth, social trends, climate change and other factors determining “The Future of the City.”

A $10 million gift from Princeton Trustee William Fung, Class of 1970, established the forum and the Fung Global Fellows Program, which is administered by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies and brings international early-career faculty members working in the social sciences and the humanities to Princeton for a year of research, writing and collaboration. Fung is chairman of the Hong Kongbased Li & Fung group of export and retailing companies.  The 2014 Princeton-Fung Global Forum will be held in Paris.

-By Dan Day