This Week in Research: The March on Washington & Jumpstarting the Heart with Light

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As you’d be hard pressed not to know by now, this week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where a quarter of a million Americans gathered on the Washington Mall to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. make his “I Have a Dream” speech.

One of the crucial aspects of the 1963 march was that it brought together activists and organizers from across the country, says Johns Hopkins history professor Nathan Connolly. That meant that it became quickly clear that racial segregation — and attendant problems of police brutality, and housing and labor discrimination — was emphatically not just a Southern problem.

Connolly also stresses the economic impetus behind the march, which is something often overlooked. “In New Orleans, Miami, and other Southern cities, for instance, African-Americans principally occupied unskilled, menial, and servile positions in agriculture or domestic work, sometimes in proportions in excess of 80 percent,” he told the Hopkins Hub. :The March on Washington’s organizers, therefore, asked for increases to the minimum wage, government programs for job training, increased protections against unlawful terminations, and improved access to unionized and municipal employment, which tended to carry retirement benefits, health benefits, and other employee protections. Such demands paved the way for more robust defenses of fair employment laws and affirmative action.”

Read more of Connolly’s thoughts on the march and its role in history here.

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In television hospital dramas, heart attack victims are jolted back into life with a burst of electricity from a defibrillator. Pacemakers work on much the same model (if on a smaller scale); in both cases, an electric current is what jumpstarts the heart. But such a process delivers quite a jolt — literally! — and so Johns Hopkins researchers are trying to come up with a gentler way to correct life-threatening arrhythmias.

Their solution?  Low-energy light. “Applying electricity to the heart has its drawbacks,” Natalia Trayanova, professor of biomedical engineering, told the Hopkisn Hub. “When we use a defibrillator, it’s like blasting open a door because we don’t have the key. It applies too much force and too little finesse. We want to control this treatment in a more intelligent way. We think it’s possible to use light to reshape the behavior of the heart without blasting it.”

This will involve the complicated task of inserting light-responsive proteins into cells. When exposed to light, these proteins serve as a kind of passageway, allowing an electric charge to pass through. (Other scientists are exploring the effects of light-sensitive cels on brain cells, so we may also soon see light therapy as an alternative to the more disruptive electroshock therapy still in use.)



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