Duke Research Blog

Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke.

Visual Perception in Congenitally Blind Adults

Vision provides a rich source of information that most people’s lives revolve around. Yet, for blind people, how do they conceive of visual intake and what happens to regions of the brain dedicated to vision if a person doesn’t have typical visual input? These are questions that drive Marina Bedny PhD, an Assistant Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and principal investigator of a neuroplasticity and development lab at John Hopkins University.

Bedny spoke at Duke’s Institute for Brain Sciences on Friday, January 17th, about her work with congenitally blind adults. Her lab explores similarities and distinctions of visual perceptions between blind and seeing people and seeks to understand how nuanced, natural variation in experience shapes the human mind and brain.

Many of the studies Bedny discussed have very important linguistic components. In one trial, she investigated the meaning of verbs pertaining to light events and visual perception as compared to touch, amodal, auditory, and motion verbs.

Both blind and sighted people displayed nearly identical results when comparing the different types of verbs used in the study. This showed that there were no differences in what blind people knew about the terms. Analysis of the verbs revealed that linguistic dimensions of intensity and instability were used to evaluate the words’ comparative meanings. Blind people agreed more on the comparison of sound emission and touch perception words. This shows that blind participants have more aligned comprehension of the meanings of other sensory terms compared to sighted people.

In other cases, Bedny’s lab assessed what blind individuals know about color. One study used three object types – natural kinds, functional artifacts, and non-functional artifacts. These categories were used to evaluate agreeance not only on color, but the relevancy of color to certain objects’ functions as well.

Another crucial question of Bedny’s work looks at how the innate structure of the brain constrains cortical function. The findings show that the visual system in blind participants has been repurposed for higher cognitive functions and that portions of the visual system connected to high cognitive abilities are invaded by the visual systems. Along with repurposing visual regions for linguistic use, Bedny’s lab found that visual regions of the brain are active during numerical processing tasks too.

Blind people display additional activity in the visual centers of their brain in numerous studies beyond having the same regional brain responsiveness as sighted people. Though further research is necessary, Bedny proposes that there is a sensitive period during development that is critical to the specialization of the brain. Study participants who have adult-onset blindness do not show the same sensitivity and patterned responses in visual cortices repurposed for different functions as congenitally blind subjects.

At birth, the human cortex is pluripotent – providing the best of both worlds, Bedny said. The brain is prepared but highly flexible. Her studies have repeatedly shown that the brain is built for and transformed by language, and they underscore the importance of nature and nurture in human development.

Post by Cydney Livingston

The evolution of a tumor

The results of evolution are often awe-inspiring — from the long neck of the giraffe to the majestic colors of a peacock — but evolution does not always create structures of function and beauty.

In the case of cancer, the growth of a population of malignant cells from a single cell reflects a process of evolution too, but with much more harrowing results.

Johannes Reiter uses mathematical models to understand the evolution of cancer

Researchers like Johannes Reiter, PhD, of Stanford University’s Translational Cancer Evolution Laboratory, are examining the path of cancer from a single sell to many metastatic tumors. By using this perspective and simple mathematical models, Reiter interrogates the current practices in cancer treatment. He spoke at Duke’s mathematical biology seminar on Jan. 17.

 The evolutionary process of cancer begins with a single cell. At each division, a cell acquires a few mutations to its genetic code, most of which are inconsequential. However, if the mutations occur in certain genes called driver genes, the cell lineage can follow a different path of rapid growth. If these mutations can survive, cells continue to divide at a rate faster than normal, and the result is a tumor.

As cells divide, they acquire mutations that can drive abnormal growth and form tumors. Tumors and their metastases can consist of diverse cell populations, complicating treatment plans out patient outcomes. Image courtesy of Reiter Lab

With each additional division, the cell continues to acquire mutations. The result is that a single tumor can consist of a variety of unique cell populations; this diversity is called intratumoral heterogeneity (ITH). As tumors metastasize, or spread to other locations throughout the body, the possibility for diversity grows.

Intratumoral heterogeneity can exist within primary tumors, within metastases, or between metastases. Vogelstein et al., Science, 2013

Reiter describes three flavors of ITH. Intra-primary heterogeneity describes the diversity of cell types within the initial tumor. Intrametastatic heterogeneity describes the diversity of cell types within a single metastasis. Finally, inter-metastatic heterogeneity describes diversity between metastases from the same primary tumor.

For Reiter, inter-metastatic heterogeneity presents a particularly compelling problem. If treatment plans are made based on biopsy of the primary tumor but the metastases differ from each other and from the primary tumor, the efficacy of treatment will be greatly limited.

With this in mind, Reiter developed a mathematical model to predict whether a cell sample collected by biopsy of just the primary tumor would provide adequate information for treatment.

Using genetic sequence data from patients who had at least two untreated metastases and a primary tumor, Reiter found that metastases and primary tumors overwhelmingly share a single driver gene. Reiter said this confirmed that a biopsy of the primary tumor should be sufficient to plan targeted therapies, because the risk of missing driver genes that are functional in the metastases proved to be negligible.

 In his next endeavors as a new member of the Canary Center for Cancer Early Detection, Reiter plans to use his knack for mathematical modeling to tackle problems of identifying cancer while still in its most treatable stage.  

Post by undergraduate blogger Sarah Haurin

Post by Sarah Haurin

Curating a New Portrait of Black America

It’s been over three years since the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) opened in D.C. in September 2016, but the excitement around it doesn’t seem to have dimmed much. Chances are, you’re going to have to get your tickets three months in advance if you want to visit. Infants need their own timed pass, too.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Photo courtesy of Prabal Tiwari

On Friday, January 17, Duke’s From Slavery to Freedom Lab hosted a panel in conjunction with the Franklin Humanities Institute on the topic of contemporary Black arts and icons. The panel, “New Black Aesthetics,” featured speakers Rhea L. Combs, curator at the National Museum of African American & Culture, and Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art & Art History at Duke, and was one half of a two-panel conference titled “Black Images, Black Histories.”

According to Combs and Powell, the reason for the unprecedented popularity of works like the NMAAHC by contemporary Black artists is likely because they do something that other pieces and people rarely do: allow African Americans to tell the African American story.

As a museum curator, Combs doesn’t simply curate cohesive mixed-media exhibitions that shed light on the Black experience. In order to create those exhibitions, she must also dig through and analyze a wide range of old archival materials.

20180925-Rhea Resized.jpg
Rhea L. Combs, Curator at the NMAAHC.
Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian

However, these archival materials at the NMAAHC aren’t necessarily just historical artifacts and records associated with figures like Rosa Parks or the Obamas; the Museum wants people to shuffle through their own attics to find things to donate. It demystifies the question of who belongs in a museum, according to Combs. “We create agency in terms of who gets to tell everyday stories,” she said.

She’s especially interested in the role of photography and film in African American studies. “We use cameras to culturally agitate the ways in which African Americans are understood,” she explained; the camera is a pathway into self-representation.

Captured in the Museum’s photos and moving images are stories of duplicity, or “celebrations that happened in the midst of tragedies.” Combs often finds themes of faith and activism as well as education and uplift, but she says that there’s plenty of variety within those overarching ideas. A photo of boys playing basketball on unicycles, for example.

“Art creates social understanding of who we are,” Combs said. Like hip-hop remixes and re-envisions things that are already understood in one way, so too does the NMAAHC.

On a similar vein, Powell’s presentation focused on the famous Obama portraits, and I’m guessing you might already know which ones I’m referring to. A fully-suited Barack Obama, seated in a wooden chair against a lush green background of flora and fauna; Michelle Obama in a flowing black-and-white colorblock dress, her chin resting on the back of her hand.

Powell examines how these portraits, simply titled “President Barack Obama” and “First Lady Michelle Obama,” manage to blend visual elements with socio-historical allusions and contexts to become world-famous 21st-century icons.

Richard J. Powell, Professor of Art and Art History at Duke.

While the portraits are visually exceptional, Powell said their context is what envelops. These images of the first Black U.S. president and first lady do allude to the old, white traditions of portraiture, “but they dismantle the genre’s conventional outcomes” for something new, he explained.

The portrait of Barack Obama is, visually, extremely similar to those of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Likewise, Michelle Obama’s portrait quite closely resembles that of Madame Moitessier, for example. But unlike these representations of pre-21st-century white men and women, the Obama portraits finally depict people of color. According to Powell, portraits elevate status, and it isn’t very often that you see Black individuals portrayed.

And yet there’s also a sad irony involved, Powell explained. Especially for other similar contemporary works of portraiture that depict Black people, there’s a decorative, incongruous grandeur that highlights the tension between social realities and the manner of portrayal. For instance, “saintly” portraits exist of Black men wearing urban clothing, but despite whatever “saintliness” might be visually depicted, the realities of Blackness in the inner cities of America is often far from positive.

One of the most striking features of the Barack Obama portrait is the blooming greenery behind the former president. It’s a metaphor of sorts, Powell said: social and historical context isn’t absent from art. Or, in other words, “The world can never be left out of the garden.”

By Irene Park

First-Year Students Designing Real-World Solutions

In the first week of fall semester, four first-year engineering students, Sean Burrell, Teya Evans, Adam Kramer, and Eloise Sinwell, had a brainstorming session to determine how to create a set of physical therapy stairs designed for children with disabilities. Their goal was to construct something that provided motivation through reward, had variable step height, and could physically support the students. 

Evans explained, “The one they were using before did not have handrails and the kids were feeling really unstable.”

,
Teya Evans is pictured stepping on the staircase her team designed and built. With each step, the lightbox displays different colors.

The team was extremely successful and the staircase they designed met all of the goals set out by their client, physical therapists. It provided motivation through the multi-colored lightbox, included an additional smaller step that could be pulled out to adjust step height, had a handrail to physically support the students and could even be taken apart for easy transportation.

This is a part of the Engineering 101 course all Pratt students are required to take. Teams are paired with a real client and work together throughout the semester to design and create a deliverable solution to the problem they are presented with. At the end of the semester, they present their products at a poster presentation that I attended. It was pretty incredible to see what first-year undergraduates were able to create in just a few months.

The next poster I visited focused on designing a device to stabilize hand tremors. The team’s client, Kate, has Ataxia, a neurological disorder that causes her to have uncontrollable tremors in her arms and hands. She wanted a device that would enable her to use her iPad independently, because she currently needs a caregiver to stabilize her arm to use it. This team, Mohanapriya Cumaran, Richard Sheng, Jolie Mason, and Tess Foote, needed to design something that would allow Kate to access the entire screen while stabilizing tremors, being comfortable, easy to set up and durable.

The team was able to accomplish its task by developing a device that allowed Kate to stabilize her tremors by gripping a 3D printed handlebar. The handlebar was then attached to two rods that rested on springs allowing for vertical motion and a drawer slide allowing for horizontal motion.

“We had her [Kate] touch apps in all areas of the iPad and she could do it.” Foote said. “Future plans are to make it comfier.”

The team plans to improve the product by adding a foam grip to the handlebar, attaching a ball and socket joint for index finger support, and adding a waterproof layer to the wooden pieces in their design. 

The last project I visited created a “Fly Flipping Device.” The team, C. Fischer, E. Song, L. Tarman, and S. Gorbaly, were paired with the Mohamed Noor Lab in the Duke Biology Department as their client. 

Tarman explained, “We were asked to design a device that would expedite the process of transferring fruit flies from one vial to another.”

The Noor lab frequently uses fruit flies to study genetics and currently fly flipping has to be done by hand, which can take a lot of time. The goal was to increase the efficiency of lab experiments by creating a device that would last for more than a year, avoid damaging the vials or flies, was portable and fit within a desk space. 

The team came up with over 50 ideas on how to accomplish this task that they narrowed down to one that they would build. The product they created comprised of two arms made of PVC pipe resting on a wooden base. Attached to the arms were “sleeves” 3D printed to hold the vials containing flies. In order to efficiently flip the flies, one of the arms moves about the axis allowing for multiple vials to be flipped that the time it would normally take to flip one vial. The team was very successful and their creation will contribute to important genetic research.

The Fly Flipping Device

It was mind-blowing to see what first-year students were able to create in their first few months at Duke and I think it is a great concept to begin student education in engineering through a hands-on design process that allows them to develop a solution to a problem and take it from idea to implementation. I am excited about what else other EGR 101 students will design in the future.

By Anna Gotskind


Teens Have the Feels About Their Family’s Standing

A study of British twins appearing this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that an adolescent’s sense of their own family’s social and economic standing is closely linked to that child’s physical and cognitive health.

In fact, the adolescent’s perception of status was a more powerful predictor of their well-being and readiness for further education than their family’s actual status. The study sample represented the full range of socioeconomic conditions in the U.K.

“Testing how young people’s perceptions related to well-being among twins provided a rare opportunity to control for poverty status as well as environmental and genetic factors shared by children within the same family,” said lead author Joshua Rivenbark, an MD/PhD student in Duke’s Medical School and Sanford School of Public Policy.

Joshua Rivenbark is an MD/PhD student in medicine and policy

“Siblings grew up with equal access to objective resources, but many differed in where they placed their family on the social ladder – which then signaled how well each twin was doing,” Rivenbark said.

Researchers followed 2,232 same-sex twins born in England and Wales in 1994-95 who were part of the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study based at King’s College London. Adolescents assessed their family’s social ranking at ages 12 and 18. By late adolescence, these beliefs signaled how well the teen was doing, independent of the family’s access to financial resources, healthcare, adequate nutrition and educational opportunities. This pattern was not seen at age 12.

“The amount of financial resources children have access to is one of the most reliable predictors of their health and life chances,” said Candice Odgers, a professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine, who is the senior author of the report. “But these findings show that how young people see their family’s place in a hierarchical system also matters. Their perceptions of social status were an equally good, and often stronger, indicator of how well they were going to do with respect to mental health and social outcomes.”

Study findings also showed that despite growing up in the same family, the twins’ views were not always identical. By age 18, the twin who rated the family’s standing as higher was less likely to be convicted of a crime; was more often educated, employed or in training; and had fewer mental health problems than his or her sibling.

“Studies that experimentally manipulate how young people see their social position would be needed to sort out cause from effect,” Rivenbark said.

The E-Risk study was founded and is co-directed by Duke professors Avshalom Caspi and Terrie Moffitt at King’s College London.

Guest Post by Pat Harriman, UC-Irvine News @UCIPat

Flu No More: The Search for a Universal Vaccine

Chances are, you’ve had the flu. 

Body aches, chills, congestion, and cough—for millions across the globe, these symptoms are all too familiar.

For some, though, the flu leads to serious complications. Last year, as many as 647,000 Americans were hospitalized due to flu-related illness, with an additional 61,000 deaths.

Countless hours of lost productivity also accompany the illness. Including hospitalization costs, estimates for the flu’s total economic burden range from 10 to 25 billion dollars each year.

Flu prevention efforts have yielded mixed results. For many viruses, vaccines provide protection that lasts a lifetime, building up a network of antibodies primed to neutralize future infections. Influenza viruses, however, mutate quickly, rendering vaccines from years past ineffective. As a result, new vaccines are constantly in development. 

Every year, researchers predict which flu viruses are likely to dominate the upcoming flu season. Based on these predictions, new vaccines target these specific strains. Consequentially, the effectiveness of these vaccines vary with the prediction. When a vaccine is a good match for the dominant flu strain, it can lower rates of infection by 40-50%. When it isn’t, its preventative power is far lower; in 2014, for example, the yearly influenza vaccine was only 19% effective

Peter Palese, Ph. D, might have a better solution. Working at the Icahn School of Medicine, Palese and his team are developing a vaccine that takes a new approach to flu prevention. 

Just before classes ended last month, Palese spoke at the Duke Influenza Symposium, a showcase of Duke’s current research on influenza. The symposium is part of Duke’s larger push to improve the efficacy of flu vaccination.

Palese’s vaccines work by redirecting the immune response to the influenza virus. Traditional vaccines create antibodies that target hemagglutinins, proteins found on the outermost part of influenza viruses. Hemagglutinins are divided into two regions: a head domain and a stalk domain (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Left: General influenza structure. Right: Hemagglutinins are divided into two regions: a head domain and a stalk. The head domain is prone to mutation and undergoes rapid change while the stalk domain is more resistant to mutation.
Source: Frontiers in Immunology

In a traditional vaccination, the head domain is immunodominant—that is, the antibodies produced by vaccines preferentially target and neutralize the head domains. However, the head domain is highly prone to mutation and varies between different strains of influenza. As a result, antibodies for one strain of the virus provide no protection against other strains.

The new vaccines pioneered by Palese and his team instead target the stalk domain, a part of hemagglutinin that mutates far slower than the head domain. The stalk is also conserved across different subtypes of the influenza virus. As a result, these vaccines should theoretically provide long-lasting protection against most strains of influenza.

Testing in ferret, mice, and guinea pigs have produced promising results. And early human trials suggest that this new kind of vaccination grants broad immunity against influenza. But long-term results remain unclear—and more trials are underway. “We would love to say it works,” Palese says. “But give us 10 years.”

In the meantime, the seasonal flu vaccine is our best option.“The recommendation to vaccinate everyone is the right policy,” Palese tells us.

Post by Jeremy Jacobs

Inventing New Ways to Do Brain Surgery

This is the sixth and final 2019 post written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.

Dr. Patrick Codd is the Director of the Duke Brain Tool Laboratory and an Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at Duke. Working as a neurosurgeon and helping with the research and development of various neurosurgical devices is “a delicate balance,” he said.

Patrick Codd

Codd currently runs a minimally invasive neurosurgery group. However, at Massachusetts General Hospital, he used to run the trauma section. When asked about which role was more stressful, he stated “they were both pretty stressful” but for different reasons. At Mass General, he was on call for most hours of the day and had to pull long shifts in the operating room. At Duke, he has to juggle surgery, teaching, and research and the development of new technology.

“I didn’t know I was going to be a neurosurgeon until I was in college,” Codd said. Despite all of the interesting specialties he learned about in medical school, he said “it was always neurosurgery that brought me back.”

Currently, he is exclusively conducting cranial surgery.

 Neurosurgeon U.S. Air Force Maj Jonathan Forbes,looks through loupes as he performs brain surgery at the Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, Oct. 10, 2014. 

Though Dr. Codd has earned many leadership positions in his career, he said he was never focused on advancement. He simply enjoys working on topics which he loves, such as improving minimally invasive surgical techniques. But being in leadership lets him unite other people who are interested in working towards a common goal in research and development. He has been able to skillfully bring people together from various specialties and help guide them. However, it is difficult to meet everyone’s needs all of the time. What is important for him is to be a leader when he needs to be.

Dr. Codd said there are typically five to eight research papers necessary in to lay the groundwork for every device that is developed. However, some technologies are based on the development of a single paper. He has worked on devices that make surgery more efficient and less minimally invasive and those that help the surgical team work together better. When developing technologies, he tries to keep the original purpose of the devices the same. However, many revisions are made to the initial design plans as requirements from the FDA and other institutions must be met. Ironically, Dr. Codd can’t use the devices he develops in his own operating room because it would be a conflict of interest. Typically other neurosurgeons from across the country will use them instead.

Post by Andrew Bahhouth, NCSSM 2020

Working Through Frustrations to Understand Nature Better

This is the fifth of six posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.

Research is a journey full of uncertainty in which scientists have to construct their own path, even if they’re unsure of what the end of the journey actually is. Despite this unpredictability, researchers continue their journey because they believe their work will one day drive their fields forward. At least, that’s why Kate Meyer Ph.D. says she has investigated something called m6A for several years.

Kathryn Meyer, Ph.D.

“Virtually every study that I have ever been part of had some frustrations involved because everything can fall apart in just one night,” Meyer said. “Despite all the frustrations you might have, you are still in the research because you know that at the end of the day, you will get new knowledge that is worthy to your field, or perhaps to the world.”

N6-methyladenosine (or m6A) is a modification to one of the four main bases of RNA – adenosine. Because RNA plays a significant role as a bridge between genetic information and functional gene products, modifications in RNA can alter how much of a certain product will be produced, which then controls how our cells and eventually our whole body functions.

The idea of this tiny but powerful modification was first proposed in the 1970s. But scientists struggled to find where m6A was located in the cell before research Meyer made a major contribution to as a trainee was published in 2012. Combining a newly developed antibody that could recognize m6A and gene sequencing techniques that became more accessible to the researchers, Meyer’s work led to the first method that can detect and sequence all of the m6A regions in a cell.

m6A’s interaction with a neuron, as depicted on Dr. Meyer’s laboratory site.

Meyer’s work was transformative research. Her method allowed laboratories around the world to investigate what regulates m6A and what its consequences are. Meyer said this first study which ignited m6A field is one of her most prideful moments as a researcher. 

Significant progress has been made since 2012, but there are still lots of questions that need to be answered. Currently, Meyer’s research team is investigating the relationships between m6A and various neurological issues. She believes that regulation of m6A controls the expression, or activity level, of various genes in the brain. As such, m6A may play an important role in neurodegenerative diseases and memory.

Author Jun Hee Shin, left, and Kate Meyer in her lab.

As an assistant professor of both biochemistry and neurobiology at Duke, Meyer is definitely one of the most important figures in the m6A field. Despite her many accomplishments, she said she had experienced and overcome many frustrations and failures on her way to the results.

Guest Post by Jun Shin, NCSSM 2020

Infants, Immunity, Infections and Immunization

This is the fourth of several posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.

Dr. Giny Fouda’s research focuses on infant immune responses to infection and vaccination.

Her curiosity about immunology arose during her fourth year of medical school in Cameroon, when she randomly picked up a book on cancer immunotherapy and was captivated. Until then, she conducted research on malaria and connected it to her interest in pediatrics by studying the effects of the parasitic disease on the placentas of mothers.

Genevieve Giny Fouda M.D., Ph.D.

As a postdoctoral fellow at Duke, she then linked pediatrics and immunology to begin examining mother to child transmission of disease and immunity.

Today she is an M.D. and a Ph.D. and a member of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute. She’s an assistant professor in pediatrics and an assistant research professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke University School of Medicine.

Based on the recent finding that children of HIV-positive mothers are more susceptible to inheriting the disease, Fouda believes that it is important to understand how to intervene in passive immunity transmissions in order to limit them. Children and adults recover from diseases differently and uncovering these differences is important for vaccine development.

This area of research is personally important to her, because she learned from her service in health campaigns in Central Africa that it is much easier to prevent disease than to treat.

Babies!

However, she believes that it is important to recognize that research is a collaborative experience with a team of scientists. Each discovery is not that of an individual, but can be accredited to everyone’s contribution, especially those whose roles may seem small but are vital to the everyday operations of the lab.

At the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, Fouda enjoys collaborating as a team and contributing her time as a mentor and trainer of young scientists in the next generation.

Outside of the lab, Fouda likes to spend time reading books with her daughter, traveling, decorating and gardening. If there was one factor that improve how science in immunology is conducted, she would stress that preventing disease is significantly cheaper than treating those that become infected by it.

Dr. Fouda has made some remarkable progress in the field of disease treatment with her hard working and optimistic personality, and I know that she will continue to excel in her objectives for years to come.

Post by Vandanaa Jayaprakash NCSSM 2020

Games, Art, and New Frontiers

This is the third of several posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.

Beneath Duke University’s Perkins library, an unassuming, yet fiercely original approach to video games research is underway. Tied less to computer science and engineering than you might expect, the students and faculty are studying games for their effects on players.

I was introduced to a graduate researcher who has turned a game into an experiment. His work exists between the humanities, psychology, and computer science. Some games, particularly modern ones, feature complex economies that require players to collaborate as often as they compete. These researchers have adapted that property to create an economics game in which participants anonymously affect the opportunities – and setbacks – of other players. Wealth inequality is built in. The players’ behavior, they hope, will inform them about ‘real-world’ economic decisions.

Shai Ginsburg playing

At the intersection of this interdisciplinary effort with games, I met  Shai Ginsburg, an associate professor in the department of Asian and Middle Eastern studies who studies video games and board games the way other humanities professors might study Beowulf.

For example, he is able to divide human history into eras of games rather than of geopolitics.

“Until recently, games were not all that interactive,” he says. “Video games are, obviously, interactive, but board games have evolved, too, over the same period of time.” This shift is compelling because it offers us new freedoms in the way we express human experience.

A new gaming suite at Lawrence Tech University in Southfield, Mich. (LTU/Matt Roush)

“The fusion of storytelling and interactivity in games is very compelling,” Ginsburg says. “We haven’t seen that many games that handle issues like mental illness,” until more recently, he points out. The degree of interactivity in a video game grants a player a closeness to the narrative in the areas where writing, music, and visual art alone would be restricted. This closeness gives game designers – as artists – the freedom to explore themes where those artistic restrictions also hinder communication.

However, Dr. Ginsburg is not a game historian; the time that a game feature evolved is far less relevant to him than how its parent game affects players. “We tend to focus on the texts that interest us in a literature class,” he says, by way of example. He studies the games that interest him for the play opportunities they provide.

One advantage of using games as a medium to study their effects on people is that, “the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow is not yet there,” Ginsburg says. In painting, writing, and plenty of other mediums, a clear distinction between “good” and “bad” is decided simultaneously by communities of critics and consumers. Not so, in the case of games.

“I look at communities as a measure of the effectivity of the game less than for itself,” Ginsburg notes. “I think the question is ‘how was I reacting?’ and ‘why was I reacting in such a way?’” he says. Ginsburg’s effort seeks to reveal the mechanisms that give games their societal impact, though those impacts can be elusive. How to learn more? “Play lots of games. Play different kinds of games. Play more games.”

Guest Post by Jackson Meade, NCSSM 2020

Sharing is Caring, But How Does it Start?

This is the second of several posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.

As an occasional volunteer at a local children’s museum, I can tell you that children take many different approaches to sharing. Some will happily lend others their favorite toys, while others will burst into tears at the suggestion of giving others a turn in an exhibit.

For Rita Svetlova Ph.D. at the Duke Empathy Development Lab, these behaviors aren’t just passing observations, they are her primary scientific focus. In November, I sat down with Dr. Svetlova to discuss her current research, past investigations, and future plans.

Margarita Lvovna Svetlova

Originally from Russia, Svetlova obtained an M.A. from Lomonosov Moscow State University in Moscow before earning her Ph.D in developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. She later worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Now at Duke University as an assistant research professor of psychology and neuroscience and the principal investigator in the Empathy Development Lab, Svetlova looks at the development of ‘prosocial’ behavior in children — behaviors such as sharing, empathy, and teamwork.

Svetlova credits her mentor at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Celia Brownell, for inspiring her to pursue child psychology and development. “I’ve always been interested in prosociality, but when I was in Russia I actually studied linguistics,” she says. “When I moved to the U.S., I changed paths partly because I’ve always wanted to know more about human psychology. The reason I started studying children is partly because I was interested in it and partly because I met Dr. Brownell. I branched out a little bit, but I generally found it interesting.”

An unsuccessful sharing experience. (From Awkward Family Photos)

Although her passion for childhood development research began in Pittsburgh,  Svetlova has embraced her role as a Duke researcher, most recently tackling a scenario that most academically-inclined readers are familiar with — a partner’s failure to perform in a joint-commitment — in a co-authored May 2017 paper titled “Three-Year-Olds’ Reactions to a Partner’s Failure to Perform Her Role in a Joint Commitment.”

In the study, 144 three-year-olds were presented with a common joint commitment scenario: playing a game. For one third of the children, the game ended when their partner defected, while another third of the test group had a partner who didn’t know how to play.  The final third of the group saw the game apparatus break. Svetlova looked at how the children’s reactions varied by scenario: protesting defectors, teaching the ignorant partner, and blaming the broken apparatus. The results seem to suggest that three-year-olds have the ability to evaluate intentions in a joint commitment.

Another paper Svetlova co-authored, titled “Three- and 5-Year-Old Childrens’ Understanding of How to Dissolve a Joint Commitment,” compared the reactions of three- and five-year-olds when a puppet left a collaborative game with either permission, prior notification, or suddenly without prior notification. If the puppet left without warning, three-year-old subjects protested more and waited longer for the puppet’s return, but both age groups seemed to understand the agreement implicit in a joint commitment.

These joint commitments are only a small fraction of the questions that Svetlova hopes to address.

“A longitudinal study of prosociality would be amazing,” she says. “What I’m interested in now is the intersection of fairness understanding and in-group/out-group bias. What I am trying to look into is how children understand their in-group members vs. out-group members and whether there’s something we can do to make them more accepting of their out-group members.”

“Another one I am interested in is the neural basis of empathy and prosocial behavior. I haven’t started yet, but I’m planning a couple of studies on looking into the brain mechanisms of empathy in particular,” Svetolova says. “We plan to scan children and adults while experiencing an emotion themselves and compare that brain activation to the brain activation while witnessing someone experiencing an emotion, the question being ‘do we really feel others’ emotions as our own?’”

Svetlova also expressed her interest in the roles that gender, culture, and upbringing play in a child’s development of prosociality.

I had to ask her why teenagers seemed to “regress” in prosociality, seemingly becoming more selfish when compared to their childhood selves.

“I would distinguish between self-centered and selfish,” she assured me. “You are not necessarily selfish, it’s just that during teenagehood you are looking for your place in the world, in the ‘pack.’ That’s why these things become very important, other’s opinions about you and your reputation in this little group, people become very anxious about it, it doesn’t mean that they become selfish all of a sudden or stop being prosocial.” She added, “I believe in the good in people, including teenagers.”

Guest Post by Sellers Hill, NCSSM 2020

How Do You Engineer a Microbial Community?

This is the first of several posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.

Claudia Gunsch, the Theodore Kennedy distinguished associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering, wants to know how to engineer a microbial community. An environmental engineer with a fascination for the world at the micro level, Gunsch takes a unique approach to solving the problem of environmental pollution: She looks to what’s already been done by nature.

Claudia Gunsch, Ph.D.

Gunsch and her team seek to harness the power of microbes to create living communities capable of degrading contamination in the environment.

“How can you engineer that microbial community so the organisms that degrade the pollutant become enriched?” she asks. “Or — if you’re thinking about dangerous pathogenic organisms — how do you engineer the microbial community so that those organisms become depressed in that particular environment?”

The first step, Gunsch says, is to figure out who’s there. What microbes make up a community? How do these organisms function? Who is doing what? Which organisms are interchangeable? Which prefer to live with one another, and which prefer not living with one another?

“Once we can really start building that kind of framework,” she says, “we can start engineering it for our particular purposes.”

Yet identifying the members of a microbial community is far more difficult than it may seem. Shallow databases coupled with vast variations in microbial communities leave Gunsch and her team with quite a challenge. Gunsch, however, remains optimistic.

Map of U.S. Superfund Sites (2013)

“The exciting part is that we have all these technologies where we can sequence all these samples,” she says. “As we become more sophisticated and more people do this type of research, we keep feeding all of this data into these databases. Then we will have more information and one day, we’ll be able to go out and take that sample and know exactly who’s there.”

“Right now, it’s in its infancy,” she says with a smile. “But in the long-term, I have no doubt we will get there.”

Gunsch is currently working on Duke’s Superfund Research Center designing bioremediation technologies for the degradation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) contamination. These pollutants are extremely difficult to break down due to their tendency to stick strongly onto soil and sediments. Gunsch and her team are searching for the right microbial community to break these compounds down — all by taking advantage of the innate capabilities of these microorganisms.

A photo montage from Dr. Gunsch’s lab page.

Step one, Gunsch says, has already been completed. She and her team have identified several different organisms capable of degrading PAHs. The next step, she explains, is assembling the microbial communities — taking these organisms and getting them to work together, sometimes even across kingdoms of life. Teamwork at the micro level.

The subsequent challenge, then, is figuring out how these organisms will survive and thrive in the environment they’re placed in, and which microbial seeds will best degrade the contamination when placed in the environment. This technique is known as “precision bioremediation” — similar to precision medicine, it involves finding the right solution in the right amounts to be the most effective in a certain scenario.

“In this particular case, we’re trying to figure out what the right cocktail of microbes we can add to an environment that will lead to the end result that is desired — in this case, PAH degradation,” Gunsch says.

Ultimately, the aim is to reduce pollution and restore ecological health to contaminated environments. A lofty goal, but one within sight. Yet Gunsch sees applications beyond work in the environment — all work dealing with microbes, she says, has the potential to be impacted by this research.

“If we understand how these organisms work together,” she says, “then we can advance our understanding of human health microbiomes as well.”

Post by Emily Yang, NCSSM 2021

A Research Tour of Duke’s Largest Lab

“Lightning is like a dangerous animal that wants to go places. And you can’t stop it,” smiled Steve Cummer, Ph.D. as he gestured to the colorful image on the widescreen TV he’d set up outside his research trailer in an open field in Duke Forest.

Cummer, the William H. Younger Professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke, is accustomed to lecturing in front of the students he teaches or his peers at conferences. But on this day, he was showing spectacular videos of lightning to curious members of the public who were given exclusive access to his research site on Eubanks Road in Chapel Hill, about 8 miles west of campus.

Steve Cummer shows a time-lapse video of lightning to the visitors on the annual Duke Forest Research Tour in the Blackwood Division of the Duke Forest.

More than two dozen members of the community had signed up for a tour of research projects in the Blackwood Division of Duke Forest (which recently expanded), a research-only area that is not normally open to the public. Cummer’s research site was the last stop of the afternoon research tour. The tour also covered native trees, moths and geological features of the Blackwood Division with biologist and ecologist Steve Hall, and air quality monitoring and remote sensing studies with John Walker and Dave Williams, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Hardwood Tower in the Blackwood Division is used for air quality monitoring and remote sensing studies. Researchers frequently climb the 138 foot tall tower to sample the air above the tree canopy.

Cummer’s research on lightning and sprites (electrical discharges associated with lightning that occur above thunderstorm clouds) sparked a lively question and answer session about everything from hurricanes to how to survive if you’re caught in a lightning storm. (Contrary to popular belief, crouching where you are is probably not the safest solution, he said. A car is a great hiding spot as long as you don’t touch anything made of metal.)

Cummer kept his tone fun and casual, like a live science television host, perched on the steps of his research trailer, referring to some of the scientific equipment spread out across the field as “salad bowls,” “pizza pans” and “lunar landers,” given their odd shapes. But the research he talked about was serious. Lightning is big business because it can cause billions of dollars in damage and insurance claims every year.

An ash tree (Fraxinus spp.) being examined by one of the visitors on the Duke Forest Research tour. Blackwood Division ash trees are showing signs of the highly destructive emerald ash borer invasion.

Surprisingly little is known about lightning, not even how it is first formed. “There are a shocking number of things,” he said, pausing to let his pun sink in, “that we really don’t understand about how lightning works. Starting with the very beginning, nobody knows exactly how it starts. Like, really the physics of that.”  But Cummer loves his research and has made some advances in this field (like devising more precise sensor systems), “When you’re the first person to understand something and you haven’t written about it yet or told anyone about it… that’s the best feeling.”

The Duke Forest hosted 49 research projects last year, which —with less than half of the projects reporting—represented over a million dollars of investment in Duke Forest-based work. 

“The Duke Forest is more than just a place to walk and to jog. It’s an outdoor classroom. It’s a living laboratory. It’s where faculty and teachers and students of all ages come to learn and explore,” explained Sara Childs, Duke Forest director.

The Duke Forest offers their research tour every year. Members of the public can sign up for the email newsletter to be notified about future events.

Post by Véronique Koch

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