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Golden Scholars: UC Berkeley is the 3rd-best global university and working on Neanderthal extinction and breast cancer risks

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US News loves UC Berkeley; Berkeley proves volcanoes didn't hurt nobody; and thinks chemicals could cause breast cancer, but arsenic might actually help.

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As you may have heard, US News released their rankings of global universities based on "academic research and reputation." They have named UC Berkeley as the 3rd best global university, behind Harvard and MIT, but ahead of all other Pac-12 schools.

UC Berkeley students are in the news for petitioning against Bill Maher speaking at an upcoming commencement ceremony due to his anti-Islam comments.

Nobel season may have been less than kind to Berkeley this year, so enjoy a flashback to the day that Ernest Lawrence won his Nobel for the cyclotron.

Berkeley is one of several schools who are helping to use robots against Ebola.

A key problem limiting the use of vaccines worldwide (besides former Playboy Playmates who have mastered science and medicine) is that underdeveloped countries lack the facilities and equipment to maintain them at the proper temperature. Berkeley Lab is combating this by designing a solar-powered and portable refrigerator.

Professor Ken Goldberg shares some of his knowledge about using cloud robotics to improve technologyconsider this a warning before Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Professor Marvin L. Cohen will receive the Materials Research Society's highest honor—the Von Hippel Award—for his work in "explaining and predicting properties of materials and for successfully predicting new materials using microscopic quantum theory.

Researchers at Berkeley Lab led by Aindrila Mukhopadhyay have engineered microbes that are not only better at producing isopentenol—a product of interest in the production of biofuels—but have made these microbes more tolerant of high levels of isopentenol. In other, similar research, the microbes effectively grow sick in the presence of high levels of their product, thereby limiting productivity.

No more Neanderthals

A common lesson in science is that "causation does not equal correlation." Meaning that just because two things coincide, doesn't mean one caused the other. Every scientist has his or her favorite example to prove this and I will not bore you with mine.

Why am I rambling on with a long anecdote that isn't directly related to the main content here? Because I'm a poor writer who's too busy to write this article early enough to output quality work. But also because the extinction of Neanderthals is a mystery. Because that event coincided with the eruption of Campi Flegreia massive nearby volcanothat eruption is one of the proposed causes for the end of the Neanderthals.

UC Berkeley postdoc Benjamin Black decided to test this theory with a computational model to simulate the effects of the disaster.

Black created a computer model of Campi Flegrei's global environmental effects, and then compared the extent of cooling and acid rain with locations of known Neanderthal and human archaeological sites of the same age. (Sulfur dioxide gas can also lead to acid rain.) The results suggest the volcano's fallout was brief and limited in Western Europe, where most Neanderthals met their end by 40,000 years ago, according to the latest studies. "The unusual climatic conditions may have impacted daily life, but the effects did not last long enough to trigger a catastrophic collapse of the Neanderthal population," Black told Live Science.

Campi Flegrei sent massive amounts of ash and sulfur dioxide up into the air, which led to the aforementioned regional cooling. At its worst, these emissions caused a temperature decrease of 11°F for up to a year, which is hardly enough to trigger an extinction.

Taking full advantage of the strengths of computational modelling, Black ran a range of simulations tinkering with the volume of ash and gas emitted. Black found the simulation that most closely matched the regional atmospheric sulfate levels was caused by a low-level of a mere 55.1 million tons.

Based on the predicted temperature change and regions affected, Black believes he has ruled out Campi Flegrei as the culprit for this mass extinction.

Most of the eruption's climate-cooling pollution spread east, away from Neanderthal territory, according to research presented Monday (Oct. 20) here at the Geological Society of America's annual meeting.

"The pattern where the cooling was most intense doesn't overlap with where most of the Neanderthal sites are located," said [Black].

Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Coinciding with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, there are two related developments coming from UC Berkeley.

Up first is a commentary piece from the Center of Occupational and Environmental Health; Megan Schwarzman discussed her belief in a link between breast cancer and chemical exposure.

Evidence suggests that mammary gland (MG) development is a complex process that extends from gestation through fetal and neonatal growth, puberty, and pregnancy; altered MG development increases the risk of breast cancer and other adverse outcomes; and chemical exposures during susceptible windows of development may alter the MG in ways that increase risk for later disease.

With chemicals all around us (and inside us), there's no telling how they might affect the development of human tissueparticularly mammary gland tissue. In addition to potentially causing cancer, changes to the growth of the mammary gland may have other detrimental health effects. Because of this great risk, Schwarzman is advocating for improved and more extensive testing of products to determine how they may affect users.

"A key challenge we face in understanding how mammary gland development can be altered by chemical factors is the lack of data for thousands of commonly used chemicals," says COEH research scientist, Megan Schwarzman, a coauthor of the commentary. "We hope that increased chemical testing will help bridge that data gap."

If you'd like to read the full piece, you can find it online here.

So, does this mean all chemicals are bad for you? No. Water's a chemical and that's good for you. (Unless it's in your lungs. Or ingested at toxic levels.) And, according to a new UC Berkeley study, one chemical with a bad rap might actually decrease breast cancer risk. Hello, arsenic.

Shockingly, a study conducted by Berkeley and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile found that drinking water with "high levels" of arsenic were inked to a 50% decrease in breast-cancer fatalities. Wait, what?

The study, published this month in the journal EBioMedicine, presents results of breast cancer mortality data from a region in Chile where residents were inadvertently exposed to high levels of arsenic, a naturally occurring element found in many minerals. Instead of an increase in mortality, as with many other cancer sites, the study found that breast cancer deaths were cut in half during the period that coincided with high arsenic exposure. The effect was more pronounced among women under age 60, with mortality in these women reduced by 70 percent.

"What we found was astonishing," said study lead author Dr. Allan Smith, UC Berkeley professor of epidemiology and director of the Arsenic Health Effects Research Program. "We've been studying the long-term effects of arsenic in this population for many years, focusing on increased disease and mortality attributed to the historical exposure to arsenic in this population."

Does this mean it's time to start swallowing arsenic by the spoonful? Well, what have we learned about correlation and causation? While this is a fascinating find, there has been no research into other differences between the "normal" mortality rates and those from this Chilean region. There could be any number of other factors affecting those individuals, like diet, exercise, or Terrigen Mist empowering them with a healing factor.