Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dispatches from the Amazon-Second in a Four-part Series

Meyers in front of Rondon's house.

I had the good chance to meet Eliar Negri, Secretary of Tourism, Commerce, and Industry of Vilhena. He personally took me to visit Rondon’s house. It is a whitewashed construction with a front porch and has obviously received a new roof. We had to enter into an area reserved for exclusive use of the Brazilian Air Force but were able to get in through a gate in the fence. This is most probably a place where Roosevelt stayed before embarking down the River. In front of the house there is a strange steel contraption with a crank and a set of gears. I could not establish for sure the purpose of the heavy machine but suspect that it was intended to stretch the copper wires of the telegraph line. Eliar informed me that inside the house one can still find some of Rondon’s personal effects but it was locked.  There is also a cemetery in front of the house but no markers. These must be Rondon’s camaradas, soldiers, and Indians that died in this area. There was a rumor (as there is often) that he had buried gold in the yard and this was followed by furious digging.
Afterwards, he took me to the fairgrounds and introduced me to its president, an Italian named Agostinho Pastore. He informed us that there are very few horses in Vilhena, except for expensive purebreds kept by rich ranchers. We are in the middle of soy country, which is the local gold. It is transported by truck to Porto Velho, 500 miles north, and then by barge down the Amazon to satiate the ever-growing needs of an ever-growing  Asia. Soy is the most important component of the local economy. Mr. Pastore also told me: “Forget about horses! What you need are mules. Much more endurance.”
And much less pleasant to ride, I thought to myself.
He told me that farther south, close to the beginning of our planned land journey, there are plenty of horses and mules. He offered to keep them in his corrals, once we make it to Vilhena, and informed us that it would be a simple matter to repatriate them to their point of origin, since there are large numbers of cattle trucks in the area.
I could not contact the person that knows about the steel boat that the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition and resigned myself, in the afternoon, to watch one of the most boring matches of my life, Holland vs. Argentina.  The historian never called back and probably changed his mind about offering to help. However, I was fortunate to contact someone who owns a car rental and will take me this afternoon to my destination: the headwaters of the Roosevelt River. More to follow!

Dispatches from the Amazon - First of a Four-Part series

I decided to visit the key areas where the original Rooosevelt-Rondon expedition passed this summer.  I flew to Cuiaba, close to the town where Rondon is born. From there, I took the bus to Caceres, on the Paraguay River. It was supposed to be an uneventful trip of three hours, but a tragic accident in which six persons died and about 20were injured delayed the bus for several hours. My initial decision to rent a car and drive to Caceres myself would have put me in the middle of the turmoil. I returned the car after trying to get out of Cuiaba for 40 minutes, getting lost several times.

Caceres is a city of approximately 60,000 on the river. I inquired about regular boat transportation from Corumba and was informed that a boat has to be hired for that purpose. The trip takes approximately three days and stops at points in the Pantanal can be arranged. There is a large tourist fishing fleet in Caceres and these boats can be leased for a small group.
Bus station in Caceres.

Aware of the dangers of driving in Brazilian highways, where semis, buses, and cars fight for the right to pass each other on two-lane highways with zero shoulders, I decided to take the bus, a very comfortable and economical option. The ticket was $35 for a 500 km trip. I was able to assess the terrain that the horseback portion of the expedition will cover. 

Caceres is surrounded by marshy land; I could not identify the post of Tapiropoan on the river. The names must have changed in these 100 years. The highway, BR 362, follows supposedly the telegraph line laid by Rondon prior to the 1914 expedition and followed by Roosevelt. However, the Utitiarity Falls are not along the highway, but directly North of Caceres. The road gently rises to a plateau, called Chapada dos Parecis. The cerrado and low forests have been for the most part replaced by pastures. On our West side, we followed a mountain range. The horseback portion should not encounter any major problems.

I was pleasantly surprised by Vilhena, the last portion of the RR expedition, where the River of Doubt starts. It is, interestingly, still called Rio da Duvida on maps and MapQuest. It is only farther North that the name changes to Roosevelt River. The city has a population of  about 70,000 and is the result of a major immigration wave in the 1970s. It is now an important center of the entire region and the symmetric arrangement of streets, order, and a certain harmony are clearly the result of the immigrants from the South of the country. It is at an altitude of 600 meters which provides a pleasant climate all year long, something that definitively has helped its development. In Vilhena, I have three primary goals:
1.       Visit the headwaters of the River of Doubt.
2.       Inquire about the availability of horses for the travel from Tapirapoan to Vilhena.
3.       Visit Rondon's house.
4.       Establish local contacts and obtain support from the mayor for the expedition.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Dispatches from the Amazon - Last in a four-part series

This is an update we received July 13 from Professor Marc Meyers, who is currently in Brazil, scouting locations for an expedition up the River of Doubt, which he plans to start this fall. Meyers plans to retrace the steps of Theodore Roosevelt, who explored the river 100 years ago, in 1914.
More on Meyers' planned expedition here.

An earlier dispatch from Meyers was published online by UT San Diego here.

So, we called Lino, the chief from the Indian village we had visited, and were finally able to meet him in a poor neighborhood in Vilhena, upon our return at night. His instructions were somewhat vague: “. ..just in front of a tractor, one block after a bicycle shop…”. We finally identified three men in the dark, one just arriving home. A friendly dog received one of them, promptly carrying his baseball cap into the house, dropping it off, and returning for the backpack. The mutt struggled but was able to drag it through the dirt and into the doorway.

We took Lino to a local bar. He is already a city slicker, baseball cap, cell phone, and other trappings of urban life. His Portuguese, although heavily accented, was more easily understood than his father’s, Manuel. He assessed his father’s age as early eighties, a more modest figure than the number given by his daughter, 95, and wife, later on: 105!  Lino gave us more detailed explanations about the river. His wife was undergoing treatment for a disease that he could not explain well, but was out of the hospital already.
Rondon’s bridge was not at the village but a few kilometers downstream. Two tree trunks crossing the river are still there apparently, but the length, 20 meters (about 20 yards), is the same. The river turned into a marsh downstream and then reemerged, a couple of meters wide at first. This was also described by Candice Millard and Roosevelt: the river went underground in places. Beyond the true Rondon bridge, he could go down by motor boat for about one day until a major waterfall is reached. His tribe tried to go down from the village but got stuck in the marsh, and the old women had said, peremptorily: “It cannot be crossed. The legs sink until the knees. We took two days.”

Lino accepted to take us to the waterfall. He knows a fellow that lives there and apparently the larger fish cannot get upstream past that point. But I was interested in the entire journey, all the way to the Aripuanan River, following the memorable expedition. He looked at me for an instant, fear in his little eyes hiding behind the baseball cap: “I can’t go there. The Cinta Larga live there.”

So, things had changed much and yet so little in one hundred years. The Parecis plateau had become one of the richest agricultural expanses of Brazil. In Vilhena, personal trainers sculpted the derrieres of the local belles and happy kids returned from karate classes in the evening and wolfed down pizza slices. And 200 km from there, the Cinta Larga, the same ones that had killed Rondon’s dog and trailed the original expedition, still terrorized the less belligerent Indian tribes. “But if we can transport my boat beyond the marsh, we can go to the waterfall,” he said.

He sipped the beer, hoping that we would offer him a second bottle, and eyed the scantily clad waitress. Naif complimented her on her hardiness, since the night was chilly. We took her picture, as her father, the bar owner, watched us with an expression that was less than friendly. Then, we bailed out and took Nilo back to his wife. Before parting, he asked for some help to pay for her medicine, and we obliged. I also gave him some chocolates for the peccary girl and promised that we would return. I committed myself to plant 10 orange trees in the village, a habit that I have acquired over the years.

Back in the truck and on our way to a sophisticated restaurant, Naif explained that the Cinta Larga occupied a large swath of land along the river. It is called the Roosevelt reserve. He confirmed that this region was rich in diamonds and that South African geologists were scouting the area in rented pick-up trucks. “The Cinta Larga know about the illegal miners and come by their camps every now and then. They ask for money or diamonds and usually get them. If not…”

He then told me a story that was fascinating for the sheer terror of it. In a recent incident, a miner tried to cheat the Indians and swallowed his diamonds. They simply slaughtered him, field dressed him, and retrieved the gems from his stomach.

“Many cases like this take place. We never hear from them,” he continued after I mentioned a massacre that took place a few years ago.

“They are the pit bulls of the Indians,” he concluded philosophically. I thought of Lino’s father and the deep scar in his arm. So, we have a plan to go down the first 150 km of the river. What about the other 850 km? I close my eyes and imagine the scene, perfect for a Tarantino movie. A Cinta Larga painted in red and black, clubs down a miner and systematically inspects the entrails until the pebbles are found. Definitely, luck was on Roosevelt’s side, since only a dog was killed. Or perhaps it was Rondon’s gifts left hanging at their campsites as a proper payment for passage.  

A previous dispatch can be found here.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Juan C. Lasheras Joins NIH MABS Study Section

Distinguished Professor Juan C. Lasheras from UC San Diego has accepted an invitation from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to serve as a member of the Modeling and Analysis of Biological Systems Study Section, which reviews grant applications for scientific merit as a part of the NIH Center for Scientific Review.

The Modeling and Analysis of Biological Systems Study Section (MABS) reviews NIH grant applications concerned with the development of modeling / enabling technologies for understanding the complexity of biological systems. The scope of these systems ranges from molecular, to supra-molecular, to genes, to organelles, to cellular, to tissue and to organ level studies.

In March 2014, Lasheras and a team of biologists and engineers from UC San Diego published a paper in the Journal of Cell Biology (JCB) in which they reported their discovery that white blood cells move to inflamed sites by walking in a stepwise manner. The cells, the researchers found, periodically form and break adhesions mainly under two “feet,” and generate the traction forces that propel them forward by the coordinated action of contractile proteins.

Their discovery, which was highlighted on the cover of the March 17 issue of JCB, is an important advance toward developing new pharmacological strategies to treat chronic inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, Type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.

Modeling and Analysis of Biological Systems

Tools developed by grants funded by the NIH Modeling and Analysis of Biological Systems study section are characteristically applied to further understanding of interactions and integrations through levels and scales and the emergence of patterns that help to explain system behavior.

Members are selected on the basis of their demonstrated competence and achievement in their scientific discipline as evidenced by the quality of research accomplishments, publications in scientific journals, and other significant scientific activities, achievements and honors. 

Professor Lasheras, for example, holds the Stanford S. & Beverly P. Penner Professor in Engineering or Applied Science endowed chair at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. A member of the National Academy of Engineering, Lasheras is a faculty member in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the Jacobs School.

Professor Lashers serves as Director of the Center for Medical Devices and Technology, part of the Institute for Engineering in Medicine at UC San Diego. He is a Faculty Director of the Medical Device Engineering executive master’s degree program at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

Lasheras joins UC San Diego bioengineering professor Andrew McCulloch on the 16-person Modeling and Analysis of Biological Systems Study Section. UC San Diego is the only university with more than one professor on this NIH study section. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Jacobs School Faculty Among the Most Influential Scientists in the World

Several Jacobs School professors have been named among the most influential scientists in the world by Thomson Reuters. Congratulations to Bernhard Palsson in bioengineering, Yuri Bazilevs in structural engineering and Joseph Wang in nanoengineering.

The list compiles the most highly cited  researchers in the sciences and social sciences from 2002-2013. An excerpt from the report:

Spotlighting some of the standout researchers of the last decade, Thomson Reuters has launched Highly Cited Researchers, a compilation of influential names in science. Deriving from InCites Essential Science Indicators, a subset of the Web of Science, Highly Cited Researchers presents more than 3,000 authors in 21 main fields of science and the social sciences. These researchers earned the distinction by writing the greatest numbers of reports officially designated by Essential Science Indicators as Highly Cited Papers—ranking among the top 1% most cited for their subject field and year of publication—between 2002 and 2012. Thus, the listings of Highly Cited Researchers feature authors whose published work in their specialty areas has consistently been judged by peers to be of particular significance and utility.  It is precisely this type of recognition, recognition by peers, in the form of citations, that makes their status meaningful. The identification of these individuals is rooted in the collective, objective opinions of the scientific community. fellow scientists, through their citations, give credit to these people and their work.
Bernhard Palsson was recognized in the field of biology and biochemistry. Palsson's Systems Biology Research Group at the Jacobs School uses experimental and computational models to study cellular life. Systems biology leverages the power of high-powered computing to build vast interactive databases of biological information. Most recently, the group's analysis of metabolic pathways of 55 strains of E. Coli could prove useful in developing ways to control deadly E. coli infections and to learn more about how certain strains of the bacteria become virulent. Last year, an international consortium of scientists led by an alumnae of the Palsson group produced the most comprehensive virtual reconstruction of human metabolism to date. Dubbed Recon 2 and likened to a Google map of human metabolism, it could be used to identify causes of and new treatments for diseases like cancer, diabetes and even psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders. The consortium built on pioneering work by Palsson's team, which built the first virtual reconstruction of the network in 2007.

Yuri Bazilevs was recognized for his contributions to the field of computer science. Bazilevs, a professor of structural engineering, focuses on computational science and engineering to develop methods for large-scale, high-performance computing applications. For example, he is working with other researchers to create blood flow simulations that could lead to improvements in the design of a cardiac pump for children born with heart defects. They hope that the design changes will improve young patients' outcomes.

Joseph Wang was recognized for his work in both chemistry and engineering. Wang's work in nanobioelectronic sensors is enabling research in the field of wearable sensors for applications in medicine, military and security, and preventative health and fitness. His pioneering nanomotors research has led to advanced nanomachines for biomedical and environmental applications. Wang is the director of the new Center for Wearable Sensors at the Jacobs School, which is bringing together top UC San Diego researchers  working on sensors, low-power circuits, materials, electrochemistry, bioengineering, wireless network technologies, preventive medicine, and the life sciences.Wang was named one of the most influential analytical scientists in the world in 2013.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dispatches from the Amazon-Third in a Four-part Series

This is an update we received July 10 from Professor Marc Meyers, who is currently in Brazil, scouting locations for an expedition up the River of Doubt, which he plans to start this fall. Meyers plans to retrace the steps of Theodore Roosevelt, who explored the river 100 years ago, in 1914.
More on Meyers' planned expedition here.

An earlier dispatch from Meyers was published online by UT San Diego here.

This was a good day, and my principal objective in Vilhena was accomplished: I was able to make it to the headwaters of the Roosevelt River. It was a stroke of luck, since my historian abandoned me after an enthusiastic start. I don’t know his reasons, but my mentioning of the Brazilian Army could have given him a sour taste. In any case, I was introduced to a local car rental agency and called its owner, Naif. I explained my situation, after he inquisitively asked me where I wanted to take the car, and informed me that I needed a four wheel drive. I suggested that he join me, something he had done 4 years ago. He remembered watching the Brazil-Netherlands game in the Indian village in 2010. We have a game coming on Saturday! (Editor’s note: Brazil faces the Netherlands for third place position at the World Cup). My luck is that he accepted to join me on such short notice and inquired about the road. Fortunately, he did not trust his sense of direction and obtained the help of Roberto, from the mayor’s office, through the intercession of Rita, a most efficient and competent person.

We started after lunch in his truck and soon abandoned the paved road, crossing immense fields of corn and soy fields. I thought I was in a living nightmare: a tropical version of the U.S. corn belt. The ‘cerrado’, a thin vegetation, had been cleared on this immense plateau to give rise to modern mechanized agriculture. This area has become one of the major corn and soy producers in Brazil.  The combines were neatly parked in the large garages of Fazenda Independencia. As the road got sandier and narrower, we got deeper into a forest that gradually grew denser. We were now on the Indian reservation. Then wooden bridges that grew more and more primitive and long sandy stretches, which could have never been crossed by a two-wheel-drive vehicle. After a couple hours and many forks with no signage, the road dipped further and we approached a slope that was too irregular even for our seasoned driver. We walked down a few hundred yards and saw the river between the trees. Exactly as described by Candice Millard in her book “The River of Doubt” about Roosevelt’s 1914 expedition, it had an ominous look. I crossed it with some emotion, since it is from there that Roosevelt and Rondon launched their dramatic expedition one hundred years ago. The trees hung over the rapid water like ghosts over a child. The stream was clear and innocent, but its movement had a disquieting nature. This is the flow that had taken them down, to suffering, death and, eventually, glory.

On the other side, a band of kids played in the water. They quickly ran out as the girls covered themselves. We asked for permission, which was given by the woman accompanying the kids, crossed the wooden bridge, and entered the minute village, two houses and a dozen people. She told us that she was a Nambiquara, but that this was a Sabanes village. The name Nambiquara arose a host of feelings, since these were the Indians studied by Levy Strauss in the 1940, which led to his classic book ‘Tristes Tropiques.’ These Indians were also described by Roosevelt in his account of the expedition.
 A crew from Vilhena was there, checking the health of the Indians and measuring their blood pressure and blood sugar. Two boys played soccer while a pair of parrots squawked with infernal dissonance. An old man sat on a chair and chatted with us, telling us, in a barely understandable voice, that he remembered Rondon and that his father used to tell him stories about him. Showing his arm, which had an old scar, he explained that he used to work for the military and would be sent ahead of the soldiers to establish contact with wild tribes. A poisoned arrow had hit him there. “They rub the tip in shit,” he said with disdain and anger.  He went on, telling some other stories about Rondon’s love of nature: “He never allowed his workers to kill snakes.” Then, he told us that the remnants of the old telegraph line still could be seen, a short distance from the village.

A beautiful little girl passed by, followed by a baby peccary (Editor’s note: a type of wild pig). I tried to fetch it and got a good bite. She ran into the hut, and the pet followed her as if she was the mother. Then, she brought the little critter out, holding it in her arms. “I have a monkey inside,” she said, and her mother authorized us to step inside. Indeed, a little marmoset was hiding under the roof.
I went down and looked at the river again. This time, it looked like a hole in the forest, pointing to countless dangers. The Indian lady had told me that it was impossible to go down. “We tried,” she said, “but the river disappears into marshes, reappears, and then drops.” 
We wanted more information, but the old man referred us to Lino, the chief. But he was in Vilhena with his wife, who was sick.