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.

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan
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Growing up in Indonesia, Farwiza Farhan always loved the ocean. It's why she decided to study marine biology. But the more she learned, the more she realized that it wasn't enough to work in the ocean. She needed to protect it.

"I see the ocean ecosystem collapsing due to overfishing and climate change," she says. "I felt powerless and didn't know what to do [so] I decided to pursue my master's in environmental management."

This choice led her to work in environmental protection, and it was fate that brought her back home to the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia — one of the last places on earth where species such as tigers, orangutans, elephants and Sumatran rhinoceros still live in the wild today. It's also home to over 300 species of birds, eight of which are endemic to the region.

"When I first flew over the Leuser Ecosystem, I saw an intact landscape, a contiguous block of lush, diverse vegetation stretched through hills and valleys. The Leuser is truly a majestic landscape — one of a kind."

She fell in love. "I had my first orangutan encounter in the Leuser Ecosystem," she remembers. "As the baby orangutan swung from the branches, seemingly playing and having fun, the mother was observing us. I was moved by the experience."

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

"Over the years," she continues, "the encounters with wildlife, with people, and with the ecosystem itself compounded. My curiosity and interest towards nature have turned into a deep desire to protect this biodiversity."

So, she began working for a government agency tasked to protect it. After the agency dismantled for political reasons in the country, Farhan decided to create the HAkA Foundation.

"The goals [of HAkA] are to protect, conserve and restore the Leuser Ecosystem while at the same time catalyzing and enabling just economic prosperity for the region," she says.

"Wild areas and wild places are rare these days," she continues. "We think gold and diamonds are rare and therefore valuable assets, but wild places and forests, like the Leuser Ecosystems, are the kind of natural assets that essentially provide us with life-sustaining services."

"The rivers that flow through the forest of the Leuser Ecosystem are not too dissimilar to the blood that flows through our veins. It might sound extreme, but tell me — can anyone live without water?"

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

So far, HAkA has done a lot of work to protect the region. The organization played a key role in strengthening laws that bring the palm oil companies that burn forests to justice. In fact, their involvement led to an unprecedented, first-of-its-kind court decision that fined one company close to $26 million.

In addition, HAkA helped thwart destructive infrastructure plans that would have damaged critical habitat for the Sumatran elephants and rhinos. They're working to prevent mining destruction by helping communities develop alternative livelihoods that don't damage the forests. They've also trained hundreds of police and government rangers to monitor deforestation, helping to establish the first women ranger teams in the region.

"We have supported multiple villages to create local regulation on river and land protection, effectively empowering communities to regain ownership over their environment."

She is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year. The donation she receives as a nominee is being awarded to the Ecosystem Impact Foundation. The small local foundation is working to protect some of the last remaining habitats of the critically endangered leatherback turtle that lives on the west coast of Sumatra.

"The funds will help the organization keep their ranger employed so they can continue protecting the islands, endangered birds and sea turtle habitats," she says.

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen. Do you know an inspiring woman like Farwiza? Nominate her today!

Tired of avocados turning brown? Try this simple trick.

Ah, the delicious, creamy avocado. We love it, despite its fleeting ripeness and frustrating tendency to turn brown when you try to store it. From salads to guacamole to much-memed millennial avocado toast, the weird berry (that's right—it's a berry) with the signature green flesh is one of the more versatile fruits, but also one of the more fickle. Once an avocado is ready, you better cut it open within hours because it's not going to last.

Once it's cut, an avocado starts to oxidize, turning that green flesh a sickly brown color. It's not harmful to eat, but it's not particularly appetizing. The key to keeping the browning from happening is to keep the flesh from being exposed to oxygen.

Some people rub an unused avocado half with oil to keep oxidation at bay. Others swear by squeezing some lemon juice over it. Some say placing plastic wrap tightly over it with the pit still in it will keep it green.

But a YouTube video from Avocados from Mexico demonstrates a quick, easy, eco-friendly way to store half an avocado that doesn't require anything but a container and some water.

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Courtesy of Ms. Lopez
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Marcella Lopez didn't always want to be a teacher — but once she became one, she found her passion. That's why she's stayed in the profession for 23 years, spending the past 16 at her current school in Los Angeles, where she mostly teaches children of color.

"I wanted purpose, to give back, to live a life of public service, to light the spark in others to think critically and to be kind human beings," she says. "More importantly, I wanted my students to see themselves when they saw me, to believe they could do it too."

Ms. Lopez didn't encounter a teacher of color until college. "That moment was life-changing for me," she recalls. "It was the first time I felt comfortable in my own skin as a student. Always remembering how I felt in that college class many years ago has kept me grounded year after year."

It's also guided her teaching. Ms. Lopez says she always selects authors and characters that represent her students and celebrate other ethnicities so students can relate to what they read while also learning about other cultures.

"I want them to see themselves in the books they read, respect those that may not look like them and realize they may have lots in common with [other cultures] they read about," she says.

She also wants her students to have a different experience in school than she did.

When Ms. Lopez was in first grade, she "was speaking in Spanish to a new student, showing her where the restroom was when a staff member overheard our conversation and directed me to not speak in Spanish," she recalls. "In 'this school,' we only speak English," she remembers them saying. "From that day forward, I was made to feel less-than and embarrassed to speak the language of my family, my ancestors; the language I learned to speak first."

Part of her job, she says, is to find new ways to promote acceptance and inclusion in her classroom.

"The worldwide movement around social justice following the death of George Floyd amplified my duty as a teacher to learn how to discuss racial equity in a way that made sense to my little learners," she says. "It ignited me to help them see themselves in a positive light, to make our classroom family feel more inclusive, and make our classroom a safe place to have authentic conversations."

One way she did that was by raising money through DonorsChoose to purchase books and other materials for her classroom that feature diverse perspectives.

Courtesy of Ms. Lopez

The Allstate Foundation recently partnered with DonorsChoose to create a Racial Justice and Representation category to encourage teachers like Ms. Lopez to create projects that address racial equity in the classroom. To launch the category, The Allstate Foundation matched all donations to these projects for a total of $1.5 million. Together, they hope to drive awareness and funding to projects that bring diversity, inclusion, and identity-affirming learning materials into classrooms across the country. You can see current projects seeking funding here.

When Ms. Lopez wanted to incorporate inclusive coloring books into her lesson plans, The Allstate Foundation fully funded her project so she was able to purchase them.

"I'm a lifelong learner, striving to be my best version of myself and always working to inspire my little learners to do the same," she says. Each week, Ms. Lopez and the students would focus on a page in the book and discuss its message. And she plans to do the same again this school year.

"DonorsChoose has been a gamechanger for my students. Without the support of all the donors that come together on this platform, we wouldn't have a sliver of what I've been able to provide for my students, especially during the pandemic," she says.

"My passion is to continue striving to be excellent, and to continue to find ways to use literature as an anchor, depicting images that reflect my students," she says.

To help teachers like Ms. Lopez drive this important mission forward, donate on DonorsChoose.

Courtesy of Ms. Lopez

This story was originally published on The Mighty and originally appeared here on 07.21.17


Most people imagine depression equals “really sad," and unless you've experienced depression yourself, you might not know it goes so much deeper than that. Depression expresses itself in many different ways, some more obvious than others. While some people have a hard time getting out of bed, others might get to work just fine — it's different for everyone.

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Dog groomer, librarian and knight.

Blink 182 said it best: Work sucks, I know.

When we're kids, we dream of becoming astronauts, marine biologists, firefighters … only to discover that these jobs are nowhere near what we imagined them to be. As it turns out, all jobs require work, sadly.

A recent Reddit thread asked: "What is an overly romanticized job?" And though the answers are blunt, they do reveal another side of these so-called "dream jobs."

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