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.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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The energy in a hospital can sometimes feel overwhelming, whether you’re experiencing it as a patient, visitor or employee. However, there are a few one-of-a-kind individuals like Elaine Ahn, an operating room registered nurse in Diamond Bar, California, who thrive under this type of constant pressure.

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There are a lot of reasons to feel a twinge of nostalgia for the final days of the 20th century. Rampant inflation, a global pandemic and political unrest have created a sense of uneasiness about the future that has everyone feeling a bit down.

There’s also a feeling that the current state of pop culture is lacking as well. Nobody listens to new music anymore and unless you’re into superheroes, it seems like creativity is seriously missing from the silver screen.

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Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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A recent (and fairly insensitive) sketch from “Saturday Night Live” said it best regarding the widespread fixation many have on the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial:

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Johnny Depp and Amber Heard Trial Cold Open - SNL www.youtube.com

Schadenfreude, celebrity fascination and previously inaccessible information now being at our fingertips is a potent combination in this trial, making amateur lawyers and psychologists of all who feel compelled to unleash their hot takes. And though the right to converse and speculate exists, is it always in our best interests to do so? Especially when it means potentially spreading misinformation, or at the cost of empathy and compassion?

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Mama sloth, aka Grizzly, gave birth to their healthy little one in Feb 2022, which delighted more than 3,000 people on Facebook.



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