I spent a few minutes digging in my yard all in the name of cancer research.

There is rainwater seeping into my jeans, and my instructions are about to blow away. But my front yard could hold the cure to cancer, so I keep digging.

I am outside my home in Portland, Oregon, digging in the soil with a small plastic scoop I requested from the Natural Products Discovery Group at the University of Oklahoma. An interdisciplinary team of researchers are hard at work there, looking for fungi and natural products found in soil that may be used for a host of drugs and cures for cancer, infectious diseases, and even heart disease.

So the least I can do is get my knees wet.


That's me, going full science. Photo by Margaret Ryan for Upworthy.

It sounds like something from the future, but natural products have been used in drugs for thousands of years.

Soil is packed with teeny, tiny living elements, including millions of fungi. You can't see them without a microscope, but they're really good at making and emitting new compounds called natural products. And these natural products may be the microscopic molecules researchers need to slow down growing cancer cells or stop deadly pathogens in their tracks.

But this isn't an entirely new concept.

"On the one hand, people will argue that humans have been using natural products for millennia," said Dr. Robert Cichewicz, principal investigator for the Natural Products Discovery Group, before telling me about the poison that killed Socrates. But he admits modern scientists have been using natural products to create drugs since the turn of the 20th century.

And they've come a long way since then.

A researcher assessing soil. Photo via Dr. Robert Cichewicz/NPDG/University of Oklahoma, used with permission.

Since soils are home to so many fungi and natural products, researchers at the Natural Products Discovery Group have one of the dirtiest jobs in the biz.

A biologist and natural products expert, Cichewicz leads a team of researchers assessing soils to identify promising fungi and natural products that could be turned into compounds and maybe one day, life-saving drugs.

"[Drugs] aren't just created out of the thin air in a laboratory. It's a process," Cichewicz said. "Natural products have a long history of supplying roughly half of the drugs that are prescribed today. So we're continuing that search."


Hard at work in the laboratory, studying fungi. Photo via Dr. Robert Cichewicz/NPDG/University of Oklahoma, used with permission.

Cichewicz and his team assess soil samples from all across the country to look for natural products that appear promising for slowing down cancer, attacking microbial infections, and inhibiting parasitic diseases.

The fungi and natural products can vary widely from neighbor to neighbor, or even front yard to backyard, so every sample counts.

"What we look at as a homogeneous yard is really a complex matrix of different types of micro-environments," Cichewicz said.

This is where you — yes, you! — and your matrix of a yard come in.

Photo by Margaret Ryan for Upworthy.

Cichewicz and his team are looking for soil samples from citizen scientists, no Ph.D. required.

The team is looking for people to take soil samples from their yards for use in their research. Individuals across the country can participate and request a free collection kit online. The kit includes instructions, a small scoop, a plastic bag for your sample, and a pre-paid envelope to mail your soil back.

Mine arrived two business days after I submitted my request online, and I soon found myself hard at work in my front yard. Short of a couple of soggy knees, collecting the sample was easy.

Just use the supplied scoop to get a few tablespoons of soil.

Photo by Margaret Ryan for Upworthy.

Then seal the bag tight before placing it in the pre-paid envelope.

Photo by Margaret Ryan for Upworthy.

You also have to answer a few questions about your soil, but it's nothing too tricky.

Photo by Margaret Ryan for Upworthy.

Once you submit your sample, you'll be able to track it online and eventually see the types of fungi and natural products found in your soil. It's a rare chance to get a closer look at what's under your feet every day, and it's a chance for you to play an active role in some amazing research.

A picture of the samples as they move through the testing process, which can take up to a year. Photo via Dr. Robert Cichewicz/NPDG/University of Oklahoma, used with permission.

The best part? Fungi from your soil could end up at the National Cancer Institute.

Cichewicz is working with the National Cancer Institute to make the entire collection of fungi free to researchers.

This means researchers or teams with different goals — whether it's drugs and cures for Alzheimer's, heart disease, or Parkinson's — wouldn't need to start their own collection from scratch.

"Natural products as a field has traditionally involved everybody going their own way, finding their own organisms whether they're in the jungles of South America, the frigid waters of Antarctica, or right here in Oklahoma," Cichewicz said. "This would be really a game-changer, in that, 'Here's a collection. Focus on producing new drug leads.'"

Access to this fungi library could save countless amounts of time and money and frees up the nation's top researchers to do what they do best: find compounds that work.

Photo via Dr. Robert Cichewicz/NPDG/University of Oklahoma, used with permission.

I sealed my soil and survey in the envelope and rested it gingerly on my kitchen table. After all, it's precious cargo.

Photo by Margaret Ryan for Upworthy.

Later, on my walk to the mailbox, I caught myself looking closely at my neighbors' yards for the first time. What secret does their soil hold? Maybe those flowers are so tall because they're rooted in possibility. Is there a cure for Alzheimer's under those cherry blossoms?

Maybe. Maybe not.

But since many of us know or will know someone who could benefit from this vital research, it can't hurt to look.

True

Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Researchers at Harvard University have studied the connection between spanking and kids' brain development for the first time, and their findings echo what studies have indicated for years: Spanking isn't good for children.

Comments on this article will no doubt be filled with people who a) say they were spanked and "turned out fine" or b) say that the reason kids are [fill in the blank with some societal ill] these days are because they aren't spanked. However, a growing body of research points to spanking creating more problems than it solves.

"We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and other mental health problems, but many people don't think about spanking as a form of violence," said Katie A. McLaughlin, director of the Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, and the senior researcher on the study which was published Friday in the journal Child Development. "In this study, we wanted to examine whether there was an impact of spanking at a neurobiological level, in terms of how the brain is developing."

You can read the entire study here, but the gist is that kids' brain activity was measured using an MRI machine as they reacted to photos of actors displaying "fearful" and "neutral" faces. What researchers found was that kids who had been spanked had similar brain neural responses to fearful faces as kids who had been abused.

"There were no regions of the brain where activation to fearful relative to neutral faces differed between children who were abused and children who were spanked," the authors wrote in a statement.

Keep Reading Show less
Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less