Research Blog

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

How Concerned Should You Be About AirTags?

Sticky post
Photograph of an AirTag from Wikimedia Commons. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. Creator: KKPCW.

I didn’t even know what an AirTag was until I attended a cybersecurity talk by Nick Tripp, senior manager of Duke’s IT Security Office, but according to Tripp, AirTag technology is “something that the entire Duke community probably needs to be aware of.”

An AirTag is a small tracking device that can connect to any nearby Apple device using Bluetooth. AirTags were released by Apple in April 2021 and are designed to help users keep track of items like keys and luggage. Tripp himself has one attached to his keys. If he loses them, he can open the “Find My” app on his phone (installed by default on Apple devices), and if anyone else with an Apple device has been near his keys since he lost them, the Bluetooth technology will let him see where his keys were when the Apple device user passed them—or took them.

According to Tripp, AirTags have two distinct advantages over earlier tracking devices. First, they use technology that lets the “Find My” app provide “precise location tracking”—within an inch of the AirTag’s location. Second, because AirTags use the existing Apple network, “every iPhone and iPad in the world becomes a listening device.”

You can probably guess where this is going. Unfortunately, the very features that make AirTags so useful for finding lost or stolen items also make them susceptible to abuse. There are numerous reports of AirTags being used to stalk people. Tripp has seen that problem on Duke’s campus, too. He gives the example of someone going to a bar and later finding an AirTag in their bag or jacket without knowing who put it there. The IT Security Office at Duke sees about 2-3 suspected cyberstalking incidents per month, with 1-2 confirmed each year. Cyberstalking, Tripp emphasizes, isn’t confined to the internet. It “straddles the internet and the real world.” Not all of the cyberstalking reports Duke deals with involve tracking devices, but “the availability of low-cost tracking technology” is a concern. In the wrong hands, AirTags can enable dangerous stalking behavior.

As part of his IT security work, and with his wife’s permission, Tripp dropped an AirTag into his wife’s bag to better understand the potential for nefarious use of AirTags by attackers. Concerningly, he found that he was able to track her movement using the app on his phone—not constantly, but about every five minutes, and if a criminal is trying to stalk someone, knowing their location every five minutes is more than enough.

Fortunately, Apple has created certain safety features to help prevent the malicious use of AirTags. For instance, if someone has been near the same AirTag for several hours (such as Tripp’s wife while there was an AirTag in her bag), they’ll get a pop-up notification on their phone after a random period of time between eight and twenty-four hours warning them that “Your current location can be seen by the owner of this AirTag.” Also, an AirTag will start making a particular sound if it has been away from its owner for eight to twenty-four hours. (It will emit a different sound if the owner of the AirTag is nearby and actively trying to find their lost item using their app.) Finally, each AirTag broadcasts a certain Bluetooth signal, a “public key,” associated with the AirTag’s “private key.” To help thwart potential hackers, that public key changes every eight to twenty-four hours. (Are you wondering yet what’s special about the eight-to-twenty-four hour time period? Tripp says it’s meant to be “frequently enough that Apple can give some privacy to the owner of that AirTag” but “infrequently enough that they can establish a pattern of malicious activity.”)

But despite these safety features, a highly motivated criminal could get around them. Tripp and his team built a “DIY Stealth AirTag” in an attempt to anticipate what measures criminals might take to deactivate or counteract Apple’s built-in security features. (Except when he’s presenting to other IT professionals, Tripp makes a point of not revealing the exact process his team used to make their Stealth AirTag. He wants to inform the public about the potential dangers of tracking technology while avoiding giving would-be criminals any ideas.) Tripp’s wife again volunteered to be tracked, this time with a DIY Stealth AirTag that Tripp placed in her car. He found that the modified AirTag effectively and silently tracked his wife’s car. Unlike the original AirTag, their stealthy version could create a map of everywhere his wife had driven, complete with red markers showing the date, time, and coordinates of each location. An AirTag that has been modified by a skilled hacker could let attackers see “not just where a potential victim is going but when they go there and how often.”

“The AirTag cat is out of the bag, so to speak,” Tripp says. He believes Apple should update their AirTag design to make the safety features harder to circumvent. Nonetheless, “it is far more likely that someone will experience abuse of a retail AirTag” than one modified by a hacker to be stealthier. So how can you protect yourself? Tripp has several suggestions.

  1. Know the AirTag beep indicating that an AirTag without its owner is nearby, potentially in your belongings.
  2. If you have an iPhone, watch for AirTag alerts. If you receive a notification warning you about a nearby AirTag, don’t ignore it.
  3. If you have an Android, Tripp recommends installing the “Tracker Detect” app from Apple because unlike iPhone users, Android users don’t get automatic pop-up notifications if an AirTag has been near them for several hours. The “Tracker Detect” Android app isn’t a perfect solution—you still won’t get automatic notifications; you’ll have to manually open the app to check for nearby trackers. But Tripp still considers it worthwhile.
  4. For iPhone users, make sure you have tracking notifications configured in the “Find My” app. You can go into the app and click “Me,” then “Customize Tracking Notifications.” Make sure the app has permission to send you notifications.
  5. Know how to identify an AirTag if you find one. If you find an AirTag that isn’t yours, and you have an iPhone, go into the “Find My” app, click “Items,” and then swipe up until you see the “Identify Found Item” option. That tool lets you scan the AirTag by holding it near your phone. It will then show the AirTag’s serial number and the last four digits of the owner’s phone number, which can be useful for the police. “If I found one,” Tripp says, “I think it’s worth making a police report.”

It’s worth noting that owning an AirTag does not put you at higher risk of stalking or other malicious behavior. The concern, whether or not you personally use AirTags, is that attackers can buy AirTags themselves and use them maliciously. Choosing to use AirTags to keep track of important items, meanwhile, won’t hurt you and may be worth considering, especially if you travel often or are prone to misplacing things. Not all news about AirTags is bad. They’ve helped people recover lost items, from luggage and wallets to photography gear and an electric scooter.

“I actually think this technology is extremely useful,” Tripp says. It’s the potential for abuse by attackers that’s the problem.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Rewilding the Gut

Sticky post
Processed foods and overuse of antibiotics can wreak havoc on the trillions of bacteria and other microbes that inhabit the gut. A new study of the gut microbiomes of lemurs looks at whether reconnecting with nature can help restore this internal ecosystem to a more natural state. Credit: Sally Bornbusch.

Modern life messes with the microbiome -– the trillions of bacteria and other microbes that live inside the body. Could reconnecting with nature bring this internal ecosystem back into balance?

A new study suggests it can, at least in lemurs. Led by Duke Ph.D. alumnus Sally Bornbusch and her graduate advisor Christine Drea, the research team collected fecal samples from more than 170 ring-tailed lemurs living in various conditions in Madagascar: some were living in the wild, some were kept as pets, and some were rescued from the pet and tourism industries and then relocated to a rescue center in southwestern Madagascar where they ate a more natural diet and had less exposure to people.

Collecting fecal samples in Madagascar

Then the researchers sequenced DNA from the fecal samples to identify their microbial makeup. They found that the longer lemurs lived at the rescue center, the more similar their gut microbes were to those of their wild counterparts. Former pet lemurs with more time at the rescue center also showed fewer signs of antibiotic resistance.

By “rewilding” the guts of captive animals, researchers say we may be able to better prime them for success, whether after rescue or before translocation or reintroduction into the wild.

This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (1945776, 1749465), the Triangle Center for Evolutionary Medicine, Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Fund and Lemur Love.

CITATION: “Microbial Rewilding in the Gut Microbiomes of Captive Ring-Tailed Lemurs (Lemur catta) in Madagascar,” Sally L. Bornbusch, Tara A. Clarke, Sylvia Hobilalaina, Honore Soatata Reseva, Marni LaFleur & Christine M. Drea. Scientific Reports, Dec. 27, 2022. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-26861-0.

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

Modeling the COVID-19 Roller Coaster

Sticky post
A Duke team looks at the math behind COVID’s waves as new coronavirus variants continue to emerge. Credit: @ink-drop

DURHAM, N.C. — First it was Alpha. Then Delta. Now Omicron and its alphabet soup of subvariants. In the three years since the coronavirus pandemic started, every few months or so a new strain seems to go around, only to be outdone by the next one.

If the constant rise and fall of new coronavirus variants has left you feeling dizzy, you’re not alone. But where most people see a pandemic roller coaster, one Duke team sees a mathematical pattern.

In a new study, a group of students led by Duke mathematician Rick Durrett studied the calculus behind the pandemic’s waves.

Published Nov. 2022 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, their study got its start as part of an 8-week summer research program called DOmath, now known as Math+, which brings undergraduates together to collaborate on a faculty-led project.

Their mission: to build and analyze simple mathematical models to understand the spread of COVID-19 as one strain after another popped up and then rose to outcompete the others.

In an interview about their research, project manager and Duke Ph.D. student Hwai-Ray Tung pointed to a squiggly line showing the number of confirmed COVID cases per capita in the U.S. between January 2020 and October 2022.

The COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded in waves. Adapted from The New York Times, July 18, 2022

“You can see very distinct humps,” Tung said.

The COVID pandemic has unfolded in a series of surges and lulls — spikes in infection followed by downturns in case counts.

The ups and downs are partly explained by factors such as behavior, relaxation of public policies, and waning immunity from vaccines. But much of the roller coaster has been driven by changes to the coronavirus itself.

All viruses change over time, evolving mutations in their genetic makeup as they spread and replicate. Most mutations are harmless, but every so often some of them give the virus an edge: Enabling it to break into cells more easily than other strains, better evade immunity from vaccines and past infection, or make more copies of itself in order to spread more effectively.

Take the Delta variant, for example. When it first started going around in the U.S. in May 2021, it was responsible for just 1% of COVID cases. But thanks to mutations that helped the virus evade antibodies and infect cells more easily, it quickly tore across the country. Within two months it had outcompeted all the other variants and rose to the top spot, causing 94% of new infections.

“The natural question to ask is: What’s going on with the transition between these different variants?” Tung said.

For their study the team developed a simple epidemic model called an SIR model, which uses differential equations to compute the spread of disease over time.

SIR models work by categorizing individuals as either susceptible to getting sick, currently infected, or recovered. The team modified this model to have two types of infected individuals and two types of recovered individuals, one for each of two circulating strains.

The model assumes that each infectious person spreads the virus to a certain number of new people per day (while sparing others), and that, each day, a certain fraction of the currently infected group recovers.

In the study, the team applied the SIR model to data from a database called GISAID, which contains SARS-CoV-2 virus sequences from the pandemic. By looking at the coronavirus’s genetic code, researchers can tell which variants are causing infection.

Study co-author Jenny Huang ’23 pointed to a series of S-shaped curves showing the fraction of infections due to each strain from one week to the next, from January 2021 to June 2022.

When they plotted the data as points on a graph, they found that it followed a logistic differential equation as each new variant emerged, rose steeply, and — within six to 10 weeks — quickly displaced its predecessors, only to be taken over later by even more aggressive or contagious strains.

Durrett said it’s the mathematical equivalent of something biologists call a selective sweep, when natural selection increases a variant’s frequency from low to high, until nearly everyone getting stick is infected with the same strain.

“I’ve been interested in epidemic modeling since the end of freshman year when COVID started,” said Huang, a senior who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in statistics next year with support from a prestigious Quad Fellowship.

They’re not all typical math majors, Durrett said of his team. Co-author Sofia Hletko, ’25, was a walk-on to the rowing team. Laura Boyle ’24 was a Cameron Crazie.

For some team members it was their first experience with mathematical research: “I came in having no idea what a differential equation was,” Boyle said. “And by the end, I was the person in the group explaining that part of our presentation to everyone.”

Boyle says one question she keeps getting asked is: what about the next COVID surge?

“It’s very hard to say what will happen,” Boyle said.

The teams says their research can’t predict future waves. Part of the reason is the scanty data on the actual number of infections.

Countries have dialed back on their surveillance testing, and fewer places are doing the genomic sequencing necessary to identify different strains.

“We don’t know the nature of future mutations,” Durrett said. “Changes in people’s behavior will have a significant impact too.”

“The point of this paper wasn’t to predict; rather it was to explain why the waves were occurring,” Huang said. “We were trying to explain a complicated phenomenon in a simple way.”

This research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (DMS 1809967) and by Duke’s Department of Mathematics.

CITATION: “Selective Sweeps in SARS-CoV-2 Variant Competition,” Laura Boyle, Sofia Hletko, Jenny Huang, June Lee, Gaurav Pallod, Hwai-Ray Tung, and Richard Durrett. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nov. 3, 2022. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2213879119.

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

For Weary Scholars, a Moment to Regroup, Reconnect…and Write

Sticky post

DURHAM, N.C. — English professor Charlotte Sussman doesn’t get much time in her role as department chair to work on her latest book project, an edited collection of essays on migration in and out of Europe.

“At least not during daylight hours,” Sussman said.

But a recent workshop brought a welcome change to that. Sussman was one of 22 faculty who gathered Dec. 13 for an end-of-semester writing retreat hosted by the Duke Faculty Write Program.

Duke faculty and staff gather for an end-of-semester writing retreat.

Most of them know all too well the burnout faculty and students face at the end of the semester. But for a few precious hours, they hit pause on the constant onslaught of emails, meetings, grading and other duties to work alongside fellow writers.

The participants sat elbow-to-elbow around small tables in a sunlit room at the Duke Integrative Medicine Center. Some scribbled on pads of paper; others peered over their laptops.

Each person used the time to focus on a specific writing project. Sussman aimed to tackle an introduction for her 34-essay collection. Others spent the day working on a grant application, a book chapter, a course proposal, a conference presentation.

Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, Ph.D.
Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, Ph.D.

“We have so many negative associations with writing because there’s always something more to do,” said associate professor of the practice Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, who directs the program. “I want to change the way people experience writing.”

Ahern-Dodson encouraged the group to break their projects into small, specific tasks as they worked toward their goals. It might be reading a journal article, drafting an outline, organizing some notes, even just creating or finding a file.

After a brief workshop, she kicked off a 60-minute writing session. “Now we write!” she said.

The retreat is the latest installment in a series that Ahern-Dodson has been leading for over 10 years. In a typical week, most of these scholars wouldn’t find themselves in the same room. There were faculty and administrators from fields as diverse as history, African and African American Studies, law, psychology, classics, biostatistics. New hires sitting alongside senior scholars with decades at Duke.

Peggy Nicholson, J.D., Clinical Professor of Law, writing alongside colleagues from across campus

“I really like the diversity of the group,” said Carolyn Lee, Professor of the Practice of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. “It’s a supportive environment without any judgement. They all have the same goal: they want to get some writing done.”

Sussman said such Faculty Write program get-togethers have been “indispensable” to bringing some of her writing projects over the finish line.

Participants say the program not only fosters productivity, but also a sense of connection and belonging. Take Cecilia Márquez, assistant professor in the Duke History Department. She joined the Duke faculty in 2019, but within months the world went into COVID-19 lockdown.

“This was my way to meet colleagues,” said Márquez, who has since started a writing group for Latinx scholars as an offshoot.

The writing retreats are free for participants, thanks to funding from the Office of the Dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the Thompson Writing Program. Participants enjoy lunch, coaching and community in what’s normally a solitary activity.

“I appreciate the culture of collaboration,” said David Landes, who came to Duke this year as Assistant Professor of the Practice in Duke’s Thompson Writing Program. “In the humanities our work is intensely individualized.”

Assistant Professor of Biostatistics & Bioinformatics Hwanhee Hong (left) and Adam Rosenblatt, Associate Professor of the Practice in International Comparative Studies (right)

Retreats are one of many forms of support offered by the Faculty Write program: there are also writing groups and workshops on topics such as balancing teaching and scholarship or managing large research projects.

“One of the distinguishing features of Faculty Write is the community that extends beyond one event,” Ahern-Dodson said. “Many retreats are reunions.”

After two hours of writing, Ahern-Dodson prompted the group to take a break. Some got up to stretch or grab a snack; others stepped outside to chat or stroll through the center’s labyrinth at the edge of Duke Forest.

It’s more than just dedicated writing time, Ahern-Dodson said. It’s also “learning how to work with the time they have.”

The retreats offer tips from behavioral psychology, writing studies, and other disciplines on time management, motivation, working with reader feedback, and other topics.

As they wrap up the last writing session of the day, Ahern-Dodson talks about how to keep momentum.

“Slow-downs and writing block are normal,” Ahern-Dodson said. Maybe how you wrote before isn’t working anymore, or you’re in a rut. Perhaps you’re not sure how to move forward, or maybe writing simply feels like a slog.

“There are some things you could try to get unstuck,” Ahern-Dodson said. Consider changing up your routine: when and where you write, or how long each writing session lasts.

“Protect your writing time as you would any other meeting,” Ahern-Dodson said.

Sharing weekly goals and accomplishments with other people can help too, she added.

“Celebrate each win.”

Ultimately, Ahern-Dodson says, the focus is not on productivity but on meaning, progress and satisfaction over time.

“It’s all about building a sustainable writing practice,” she said.

Ahern-Dodson leads an end-of-semester writing retreat for Duke scholars.

Coming soon: On Friday, Jan. 27 from 12-1 p.m., join Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement Abbas Benmamoun for a conversation about how writing works for him as a scholar and administrator. In person in Rubenstein Library 249 (Carpenter Fletcher Room)

Get Involved: Faculty and staff are invited to sign up for writing groups for spring 2023 here.

Learn more about sustainable writing practices: “The Productivity Trap: Why We Need a New Model of Faculty Writing Support,” Jennifer Ahern-Dodson and Monique Dufour. Change, January/February 2023.

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

Student Researchers Share What They Know About AI and Health

Sticky post

The healthcare industry and academic medicine are excited about the potential for artificial intelligence — really clever computers — to make our care better and more efficient.

The students from Duke’s Health Data Science (HDS) and AI Health Data Science Fellowship who presented their work at the 2022 Duke AI Health Poster Showcase on Dec. 6 did an excellent job explaining their research findings to someone like me, who knows very little about artificial intelligence and how it works. Here’s what I learned:

Artificial intelligence is a way of training computer systems to complete complex tasks that ordinarily require human thinking, like visual categorization, language translation, and decision-making. Several different forms of artificial intelligence were presented that do healthcare-related things like sorting images of kidney cells, measuring the angles of a joint, or classifying brain injury in CT scans.

Talking to the researchers made it clear that this technology is mainly intended to be supplemental to experts by saving them time or providing clinical decision support.

Meet Researcher Akhil Ambekar

Akhil standing next to his poster “Glomerular Segmentation and Classification Pipeline Using NEPTUNE Whole Slide Images”

Akhil Ambekar and team developed a pipeline to automate the classification of glomerulosclerosis, or scarring of the filtering part of the kidneys, using microscopic biopsy images. Conventionally, this kind of classification is done by a pathologist. It is time-consuming and limited in terms of accuracy and reproducibility of observations. This AI model was trained by providing it with many questions and corresponding answers so that it could learn how to correctly answer questions. A real pathologist oversaw this work, ensuring that the computer’s training was accurate.

Akil’s findings suggest that this is a feasible approach for machine classification of glomerulosclerosis. I asked him how this research might be used in medicine and learned that a program like this could save expert pathologists a lot of time.

What was Akhil’s favorite part of this project? Engaging in research, experimenting with Python and running different models, trying to find what works best.

Meet Researcher Irene Tanner

Irene Tanner and her poster, “Developing a Deep Learning Pipeline to Measure the Hip-Knee-Ankle Angle in Full Leg Radiographs”

The research Irene Tanner and her team have done aims to develop a deep learning-based pipeline to calculate hip-knee-ankle angles from full leg x-rays. This work is currently in progress, but preliminary results suggest the model can precisely identify points needed to calculate the angles of hip to knee to ankle. In the future, this algorithm could be applied to predict outcomes like pain and physical function after a patient has a joint replacement surgery.

What was Irene’s favorite part of this project? Developing a relationship with mentor, Dr. Maggie Horn, who she said provided endless support whenever help was needed.

Meet Researcher Brian Lerner

Brian Lerner and his poster, “Using Deep Learning to Classify Traumatic Brain Injury in CT Scans”

Brian Lerner and his team investigated the application of deep learning to standardize and sharpen diagnoses of traumatic brain injury (TBI) from Computerized Tomography (CT) scans of the brain. Preliminary findings suggest that the model used (simple slice) is likely not sufficient to capture the patterns in the data. However, future directions for this work might examine how the model could be improved. Through this project, Brian had the opportunity to shadow a neurologist in the ER and speculated upon many possibilities for the use of this research in the field.

What was Brian’s favorite part of this project? Shadowing neurosurgeon Dr. Syed Adil at Duke Hospital and learning what the real-world needs for this science are.

Many congratulations to all who presented at this year’s AI Health Poster Showcase, including the many not featured in this article. A big thanks for helping me to learn about how AI Health research might be transformative in answering difficult problems in medicine and population health.

By Victoria Wilson, Class of 2023

Anyone Can Be a “Math Person”

Sticky post
Dr. Francis Su, a mathematician and professor at Harvey Mudd College and the author of “Mathematics for Human Flourishing,” wants you to know that math can be beautiful. As these “infinitely quartered” squares show, 1/4 + 1/(42) + 1/(43) + … = 1/3. Image attribution: Tdadamemd, via Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Francis Su, Ph.D., visited Duke to talk about math. He began by talking about art.

Su, a mathematician and professor at Harvey Mudd College, displayed “Hope,” an 1886 painting by George Frederic Watts. He asked the audience to look at it, really look at it, and think about what’s happening in the painting. At first glance, it shows a blindfolded woman holding a wooden object. She seems to be in pain. But the more time we spend looking, the more we notice. We might notice that there’s a single star above her. We might notice that the wooden object is a lyre with only one string left attached. We might notice, too, that the woman is plucking that final string and straining to hear its music. 

If we take the time to explore the history of the painting, we might learn that Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about the same painting in a sermon. Su quoted a line from that sermon: “Who has not had to face the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?” We find beauty in art, and often we find it relatable as well. Art invites us to look closer, to wonder, to feel, to ask questions, to imagine.

“Why,” Su asks then, “don’t we approach mathematics the way that we approach art?”

Professor Francis Su’s book, “Mathematics for Human Flourishing.”

Whether we consider ourselves “math people” or not, we rarely if ever hear mathematics discussed as an affirmation of human virtues and desires—love, beauty, truth, the “expectation of enchantment.” Su wants to change that. In his book “Mathematics for Human Flourishing” and in his talk at Duke, he envisions mathematics as beautiful, inclusive, and accessible to anyone.

Along with the painting “Hope,” Su’s first slide shows a quote by Simone Weil: “Every being cries out silently to be read differently.” Simone Weil, according to Su, was a “French religious mystic” and “widely revered philosopher,” but she also had a deep interest in math. Her older brother, André Weil, was an influential mathematician whose mathematical achievements often overshadowed her own. In a letter to a friend published posthumously in the book “Waiting for God,” Simone Weil wrote: “I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides.” Su sometimes wonders how Simone’s relationship to mathematics would have been different if André had not been her brother. Again, “Every being cries out silently to be read differently.” According to Su, when Simone Weil speaks of “reading” someone, she means “to interpret or make a judgment about them.”

Su has a friend, Christopher Jackson, who is an inmate in a high-security prison, serving a thirty-two year sentence for involvement in armed robberies as a teenager. When you think about people who do math, Su asks, would you think of Chris?  “We create societal norms about who does math,” and Chris doesn’t fit those norms. And yet he has been studying mathematics for years. After studying algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus while in prison, he sent a letter to Su requesting help in furthering his mathematics education. The two men still correspond regularly, and Chris is now studying topology and other branches of mathematics.

“Every being cries out silently to be read differently.”

Why do math in the first place? Just as you can take your car to a mechanic without fully understanding how it works yourself, we might think of math as “only for the elite few” or perhaps as “a means to an end,” a tool “to make you ‘college and career ready.’” Su sees it differently. He views math in terms of human flourishing, “a wholeness of being and doing.” He points to three words from other languages: eudaemonia, a Greek term for “the overarching good in life”; shalom, a Hebrew word often used as a greeting and roughly translated as “peace”; and salaam, an Arabic word with a similar meaning to shalom.

The pattern on Romanesco broccoli is a fractal, common in both math and nature. Image credit: Francis Su

“What attracts me to music,” Su says, “isn’t playing scales over and over again.” But once you “experience a symphony,” you might see the value in playing scales. Can we learn to think of math the same way? Here, Su quoted mathematician Olga Taussky-Todd: “The yearning for and the satisfaction gained from mathematical insight brings the subject near to art.”

Beauty and awe probably aren’t the first words that come to mind when most of us think of math, but Su believes math can unlock “transcendent beauty.” He references a quote by C.S. Lewis: “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” That is what math at its best can do for us. It can help us see the big picture and realize that we’re “just scratching the surface of something really profound.”

“Math is not a single ‘ability,’” Su says. “In reality, math is a multi-dimensional set of virtues.” When learning or teaching math, we often focus more on skills like recalling facts and algorithms, factoring polynomials, or taking a derivative. But Su believes more important lessons are at play: virtues like persistence, creativity, a thirst for deep knowledge, and what he calls the expectation of enchantment. And, he says, employers are often much more interested in virtues than in skills. “If you want to be really practical about this—and I don’t, with mathematics, but if you do—then it’s actually the virtues that are more important than the skills,” Su says.

One basic human desire that Su believes math can help fulfill is the desire for truth, which, in turn, can help build virtues like a thirst for deep knowledge and the ability to think for oneself, which can help us figure out what’s true instead of just blindly trusting authorities. “Truth is under attack,” Su says. “Misinformation is everywhere.” Su wants to teach his students “to think, to be ‘that person who doesn’t need to look at the Ikea instructions.’” But he also wants them to view math as more than just a means to an end. “It’s my responsibility to help my students remember the beauty” in math and to understand that their dignity as human beings isn’t dependent on their grades.

Along with truth and beauty, he believes math can and should bring opportunities for exploration and discovery. “My role isn’t to be a teacher,” he says. “My role is to be a co-explorer.” He recalls his own excitement when he first saw a Menger cube, or Menger sponge, cut along its diagonal. The resulting cross-section is beautiful and, yes, enchanting. “What would it look like for classrooms to be like that?” During the pandemic, Su started adding more reflection-focused questions to his exams, questions like “Consider one mathematical idea from the course that you have found beautiful, and explain why it is beautiful to you.” Even more traditional math questions can be phrased in an “exploratory” way. Su gives the example of a question that asks students to make two rectangles, one with a bigger perimeter and one with a bigger area.

A visual representation of Nicomachus’s Theorem.
Image from Cmglee, via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Another desire or virtue important in the field of mathematics is justice. Su wants math to be accessible to all, but not everyone has had positive experiences with math or feels like they belong there. As an analogy, Su talks about receiving dishes from a “secret menu” when visiting certain Chinese restaurants with friends who are fluent in Chinese. When he goes there on his own and requests the “secret menu,” however, he is sometimes turned away or told that he wouldn’t like those dishes. “Are people side-by-side in the same restaurant having different experiences” in math, too? “Who are you to say they do or don’t belong in mathematics?”

Even Su himself hasn’t always had wholly positive experiences in math. One of his professors once told him he didn’t “have what it takes to become a successful mathematician,” and he almost quit his Ph.D. program. Instead, he switched to a different advisor who had encouraged him to stick with it. Meanwhile, he surrounded himself with people who could remind him why he loved math. Math as a field can be competitive, but “if you think of mathematics as human flourishing… then that’s not a zero-sum game anymore.” 

In Su’s words, “we’re all math teachers” because “we all pass on attitudes about math to others.” He says studies show that parents can pass on “math anxiety” to their kids. But Su encourages people to “believe that you and everyone can flourish in mathematics.” Simone Weil. Christopher Jackson. And you. 

Who will you read differently?

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Traveling With Friends Helps Even Mixed-Up Migrators Find Their Way

Sticky post
North American monarch butterflies migrate each winter to just a few mountaintops in central Mexico, with help from an internal compass that guides them home. New computer modeling research offers clues to how migrating animals get to where they need to go, even when their magnetic compass leads them astray. Credit: Jesse Granger, Duke University

DURHAM, N.C. — Some of us live and die by our phone’s GPS. But if we can’t get a signal or lose battery power, we get lost on our way to the grocery store.

Yet animals can find their way across vast distances with amazing accuracy.

Take monarch butterflies, for example. Millions of them fly up to 2,500 miles across the eastern half of North America to the same overwintering grounds each year, using the Earth’s magnetic field to help them reach a small region in central Mexico that’s about the size of Disney World.

Or sockeye salmon: starting out in the open ocean they head home each year to spawn. Using geomagnetic cues they manage to identify their home stream from among thousands of possibilities, often returning to within feet of their birthplace.

Now, new research offers clues to how migrating animals get to where they need to go, even when they lose the signal or their inner compass leads them astray. The key, said Duke Ph.D. student Jesse Granger: “they can get there faster and more efficiently if they travel with a friend.”

When their internal compasses go bad, migrating animals like these sockeye salmon don’t stop to ask directions. But they succeed if they stay with their fellow travelers. Credit: Jonny Armstrong, USGS

Many animals can sense the Earth’s magnetic field and use it as a compass. What has puzzled scientists, Granger said, is the magnetic sense is not fail-safe. These signals coming from the planet’s molten core are subtle at the surface. Phenomena such as solar storms and man-made electromagnetic noise can disrupt them or drown them out.

It’s as if the ‘needle’ of their inner compass sometimes gets thrown off or points in random directions, making it hard to get a reliable reading. How do some animals manage to chart a course with such a noisy sensory system and still get it right?

“This is the question that keeps me up at night,” said Granger, who did the work with her adviser, Duke Biology Professor Sönke Johnsen.

Multiple hypotheses have been put forward to explain how they do it. Perhaps, some scientists say, migrating animals average multiple measurements taken over time to get more accurate information.

Or maybe they switch from consulting their magnetic compass to using other ways of navigating as they near the end of their journey — such as smell, or landmarks — to narrow in on their goal.

In a paper published Nov. 16 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the Duke team wanted to pit these ideas against a third possibility: That some animals still manage to find their way, even when their compass readings are unreliable, simply by sticking  together.

To test the idea, they created a computer model to simulate virtual groups of migrating animals, and analyzed how different navigation tactics affected their performance.

The animals in the model begin their journey spread out over a wide area, encountering others along the route. The direction an animal takes at each step along the way is a balance between two competing impulses: to band together and stay with the group, or to head towards a specific destination, but with some degree of error in finding their bearings.

The scientists found that, even when the simulated animals started to make more mistakes in reading their magnetic map, the ones that stuck with their neighbors still reached their destination, whereas those that didn’t care about staying together didn’t make it.

“We showed that animals are better at navigating in a group than they are at navigating alone,” Granger said.

Even when their magnetic compass veered them off course, more than 70% of animals in the model still made it home, simply by joining with others and following their lead. Other ways of compensating didn’t measure up, or would need to guide them perfectly for most of the journey to accomplish the same feat.

But the strategy breaks down when species decline in number, the researchers found. The team showed that animals who need friends to find their way are more likely to get lost when their population shrinks below a certain density.

Prior to the 1950s, tens of thousands of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles could be seen nesting near Rancho Nuevo, Mexico on a single day. By the mid-1980s the number of nesting females had dropped to a few hundred.

“If the population density starts dropping, it takes them longer and longer along their migratory route before they find anyone else,” Granger said.

Previous studies have made similar predictions, but the Duke team’s model could help future researchers quantify the effect for different species. In some runs of the model, for example, they found that if a hypothetical population dropped by 50% — akin to what monarchs have experienced in the last decade, and some salmon in the last century — 37% fewer of the remaining individuals would make it to their destination.

“This may be an underappreciated aspect of concern when studying population loss,” Granger said.

This research was supported in part by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (FA9550-20-1-0399) and by a National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate Fellowship to Jesse Granger.

CITATION: “Collective Movement as a Solution to Noisy Navigation and its Vulnerability to Population Loss,” Jesse Granger and Sönke Johnsen. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Nov. 16, 2022. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2022.1910

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

Library Shakedowns: Book Bans and Censorship

Sticky post

“I started thinking about how I might be different, how my life might be different, how my conversations might be different, if [‘To Kill a Mockingbird’] had not been a book that I was able to read in the 8th grade… to keep reading and reading again,” recounted Professor Kisha Daniels in her opening remarks of last month’s “Policing Pages” panel. 

Professor Kisha Daniels is an Assistant Professor of the Practice of Education at Duke University and the moderator of Duke Alumni Lifelong Learning “Policing Pages: The American Classics” event.

What truly is more formative in the awkward, acned stretch of middle school than Lip-Smackered gossip and English class? Yellow page paperbacks, palimpsests of doodles and students from years past. Purchased on teacher budget scraps and booster club wrapping paper sales, Shakespeare, Orwell, a hundred used copies of “Tuck Everlasting”: stained, dog-eared, and coverless

Psychology and neuroscience researchers agree that reading (and, thus, books like “To Kill a Mockingbird”) weaves tapestries of yarny neurons and synapses, beneficial for the development of social-emotional skills, empathy, and creativity during childhood and adolescence. 

Yet, America has recently witnessed persistent efforts to ban certain titles from K12 schools. In 2004 and 2005, for example, Stanford Middle (here in Durham) challenged the inclusion of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in its own library, citing the novel’s use of racial slurs.

It ultimately was not removed from the shelves, but the book remains one of the most challenged/banned titles in U.S. school history.

Professor Sarah Ludington, a Duke Law faculty member and director of the First Amendment Clinic

In 2021, the American Library Association reported an unprecedented 729 book challenges. So why, Daniels prompted, are we seeing such a high number of banned books? And why now?

Before answering this, Professor Sarah Ludington clarified some of the misleading rhetoric propagated by the popular media. “’Banned books’ is more of a slogan,” she explained. More accurate is the idea of challenging a book, whether in a library or on the class curriculum. This does not necessarily mean the book will be outright banned or even removed from the shelf or, if it is banned, permanently. In fact, books can be reinstated, even after their removal, back to their shelf and the occasional dust bunny.

In North Carolina, such a statute exists in state law that bars an individual, like a single librarian, teacher, or parent, from undemocratically removing or banning a book. Instead, local administrative boards must take a vote.

PBS’s “Books Behind Bars”
Illustration by: Jane Mount

University Librarian Joseph Salem argued that social media platforms, like Facebook, and online groups, like Moms for Liberty, create tectonic shocks that trigger tidal waves of book challenges. They’re echo chambers: amplifying calls to remove specific books from school libraries, ping-ponging literary “hit-lists” through cyberspace with titles such as: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison (you can take a look at the full list here).

Joseph Salem is Duke’s newest University Librarian and Vice Provost for Library Affairs

These books disproportionately feature marginalized voices and are often “charged and sentenced” for containing “LGBTQ content, profanity, and/or sexual references.”

As we’re all aware, what once was local news can quickly leach into national discourse. A book ban in a rural Ohio county, for example, can be picked up by the local media, trend on Twitter, disseminate through Facebook until someone, say, in Texas or Arkansas or North Carolina decides they too want to challenge said book in their own school district.

This book-banning rhetoric and its implications are present elsewhere in education-related conversations. Take, for example, Florida’s dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” bill. In March, lawmakers in the Sunshine State argued that merely mentioning sexual orientation/gender identity in primary school settings is grounds for a lawsuit on the basis that such content is innately “sexually explicit,” no matter its context.

However, challenging certain books and even passing certain laws are usually not intentionally malicious acts. It is indisputable that some books simply do not belong on school bookshelves. A medical textbook, Ludington analogized, wouldn’t make sense in a library for children just learning how to read. But, in a high school with a more mature student body, its inclusion wouldn’t bat an eye. Further, in the U.S. more generally, First Amendment rights do not extend to all forms of speech anyways, including but not limited to “obscenity, child pornography, fighting words, and the advocacy of imminent lawless action.”

And though societal concern over the well-being of children is well-intentioned, it can often be misguided or out-of-proportion.

I don’t think it’s too outrageous to consider children as sentient and receptive, whether to new ideas, new perspectives, and/or new people.

Still, in the United States, a number of moral panics, concerning everything from poisoned Halloween candy to “Dungeons & Dragons” to subliminal messaging in rock music to Tide Pods, have been cause for parental concern.

In 1985, for example, Tipper Gore bought Prince’s “Purple Rain” album for her 11-year-old daughter and was shocked by its age-inappropriate lyrics. She took her concern to the Senate in a series of Congressional hearings which, though largely mocked, called for a music rating system like the kind adopted by Hollywood for movies. 

In 1985, Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, and John Denver (from left to right respectively) testified before the Senate against music censorship and the Parents Music Resource Center (P.M.R.C.). Notably, John Denver advocated for his song “Rocky Mountain High.

Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, and John Denver somehow managed to assemble into the eclectic “primary counsel” for the musical defense and eloquently argued that labeling and banning albums is akin to censorship.

Gore’s campaign was ultimately unsuccessful.

But, it’s not difficult to see how censorship concerns voiced in the Senate in the 80s mirror the ones voiced today.

Ludington, a self-proclaimed First Amendment enthusiast, added that “…inherent in our idea of freedom of speech is this notion that truth emerges from robust dialogue… The best way to counteract whatever pernicious effect there might be, say from a book that you wanted to ban, is actually to read the book and reason against it.” 

This kind of civil discourse is an idealism baked into the “apple pie” of American democracy. Quite arguably the Golden Delicious themselves. Over the course of U.S. history, there have been just and unjust efforts to suppress individuals’ freedom of speech. Take the infamous “yelling FIRE in a crowded theater” anecdote. 

Experts concur, however, that most censorship is unproductive and often does little to actually stymie the ideas it so desperately wants to quash. In fact, as Daniels pointed out, banning books from school libraries typically does not decrease their readership and can actually drive their sales up. 

But the implications of book banning run deep, implying that, as a society, there is little value in responsibly harboring and learning from certain (and often difficult) materials. 

Salem described a collection on hate groups, gathered by the Southern Poverty Law Center and possessed by the Duke University library. He said, “If we take a step back for a moment and think that everything in the Duke University library… is something we endorse without understanding the complexity of why we might have it, either to learn from it as a good or bad example… one might say that owning or stewarding means that we support what’s in that collection. I would push back on that vehemently. It doesn’t comport with our values at all.” 

After book banning efforts in school libraries reached an all time high in 2021, 2022 is trending to exceed last year’s figure.

Instead of arguing with disgruntled parents and Facebook groups, many underpaid librarians and teachers, Salem described, choose to self-censor, quietly removing contentious titles from their shelves to avoid unfair accusations lobbied at them in heated PTO meetings, over angry phone calls, or during school board votes. 

To oppose this form of censorship, Daniels, Ludington, and Salem agreed: Read the books! Parents, Facebook group members, and legislatures alike, read before challenging, before banning, and then after banning. Reading is really the preeminent way to avoid unnecessarily suppressing free speech in schools; to introduce yourself to new ideas, to new discourse, and to new perspectives. Daniels put it best, “The book is innocent until proven guilty.”

Give it a fair trial.  

In Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus describes empathy to Scout in a way which resonates with many of the “Policing Pages” talking points, saying: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

If interested in the “Policing Pages: The American Classics” discussion, click here to watch.

If interested in resources on book banning, check out the American Library Association for more information.

By Alex Clifford, class of 2024
By Alex Clifford, class of 2024

COVID and Our Education

Sticky post

With mask mandates being overturned and numerous places going back to “normal,” COVID is becoming more of a subconscious thought. Now, this is not a true statement for the entire population, since there are people who are looking at the effects of the pandemic and the virus itself.

I attended a poster presentation for the “The Pandemic Divide” event hosted here at Duke by the Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity. To me, all the poster boards conveyed the theme of how COVID-19 had affected our lives in more ways than just our health. One connection that particularly caught my eye would be the one between American Education and COVID.

The poster for the conference

As a student who lived through COVID while attending high school, I can safely say that the pandemic has affected education. However, based on the posters I saw, it is important to know that education, too, has a strong and impactful impact on COVID-19.

Dr. Donald J. Alcendor after a great presentation

The first evidence I saw was from Donald J. Alcendor, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Meharry Medical College in Nashville. His poster was about the hesitancy surrounding COVID-19 vaccines. One way he and his team figured out to lessen the hesitance from the public was to improve the public’s trust. To achieve this, Alcendor and his team sent trusted messengers into the community. One of the types of messengers they provided was scientists who studied COVID-19. These scientists were able to bring factual information about the disease, how it spreads, and the best course of action to act against it. Alcendor and his research team also brought in “vaccine ambassadors” to the community and a mobile unit to help give the community vaccines. He noted that this was accomplished with support from the Bloomberg Foundation’s Greenwood Initiative, which addresses Black health issues.

With this mobile unit, Alcendor and his team were able to reach people and help those who were otherwise unable to receive help for themselves because of their lack of transportation. They provided people from all backgrounds with help and valuable information.

Alcindor said he and his team planned pop-up events based on where the community they were trying to reach congregates. With the African American community, he planned pop-up events at churches and schools. Then for the Latino community, he planned pop-events where families tend to gather, and he held events in Latin0 neighborhoods. In addition, he made sure that the information was available in Spanish at all levels, from the flyers and the surveys, to the vaccinators themselves.

All of these amenities that he and his group provided were able to educate the community about COVID-19 and improve their trust in the scientists working on the disease. Alcendor and his team were able to impact COVID-19 through education, and by going to the event, it was evident to me that he was not the only one who accomplished this.

Dr. Colin Cannonier and his poster

Colin Cannonier, an associate professor of economics at Belmont University in Nashville, asked and answered the question, “does education have an impact on COVID? Specifically, does it change health and wellbeing?” To answer this question, he researched how education about COVID can affect a person. He discovered that when a person is more educated about COVID, how it is spread, and its symptoms, they are more likely to keep the pandemic in check through their behavior. He came to this conclusion because he realized that when higher educated people know more about COVID, they exhibit behaviors to remain healthy, meaning that they would follow the health protocols given by the health officials.

While this may seem like common sense that the more educated a person is, the more they make smart choices pertaining to COVID, this shows how important education is and how deadly ignorance is. Cannonier’s research gave tangible evidence to show that education is a weapon against diseases. Unfortunately, it is evident that some officials did not believe in educating the public about the virus or the virus itself, and that proved to be extremely deadly.

To fully capture the relationship between COVID and education, one must also talk about how COVID-19 affected education.

Ms. Stacey Akines and her wonderful poster

Stacey Akines, a history graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, studied how education was changed by the pandemic.

First, she realized that COVID schooling crossed over with homeschooling. Then she uncovered that more Black people started to research and teach their children about Black history. This desire to teach youth more about their history caused an increase in the number of Black homeschoolers. In fact, the number of Black homeschoolers doubled during the fall of 2020. While to some, this change to homeschooling may have a negative impact on one’s life, it actually gives the student more opportunities to learn things.

It is no secret that there are many books being banned here in the U.S., and there are many state curriculums that are changing to erase much of Black history. Homeschooling a child gives the parent an opportunity to ensure that the education they receive is true to and tells their history

Unlike me, where during high school, education felt lackluster and limited because of COVID, some parents saw an opportunity to better their child’s education.

A hall of Posters

I hope that it is clear that the relationship between COVID and education is a complex one. Both can greatly impact each other, whether it’s for the better or for the worse. COVID thrives when we are uneducated, and it very nearly destroyed education too, but for the efforts of some dedicated educators.

Post by Jakaiyah Franklin, Class of 2025

A Peek Inside the Climate Situation (V)room

Sticky post

As part of this year’s Energy Week at Duke, graduate and undergraduates were able to participate in a competitive “situation room” style event in which participants were split into five teams and given seventy-five minutes to create a plan for expanding EV (electric vehicle) access in Durham. 

For just over an hour in a Fuqua School of Business classroom, my fellow participants and I mulled over the complexities of an issue facing municipalities across the country and produced a variety of solutions, representative of the range of specialties within each group. One more CS-minded group proposed an app to both help residents locate charging stations and help the city collect data on the use of new EV infrastructure, while another group explored the technological and price saving perks of utility pole-mounted charging stations.

The resulting ideas were reviewed by a panel of judges who covered multiple areas of EV expertise: Jennifer Weiss, Senior Advisor for Climate Change Policy at the North Carolina Department of Transportation; Matt Abele, Director of Marketing and Communications at North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association; Sean Ackley, E-Mobility Segment Lead at Hitachi Americas, Ltd.; and Evian Patterson, Assistant Transportation Director in the Durham Department of Transportation.

The goal of Duke’s EnergyWeek is to “promote collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and professional networking” for students interested in the energy sector.  The situation room event was not strictly research oriented – our team rooms had windows and we were given free supper and lemonade – but it promoted the fundamentals of research: idea generation, collaboration, and outside-of-the-box thinking. 

The victors of the 2023 EnergyWeek Situation Room (photo: Michael Wood III)

The teams were tasked with crafting a strategy that combined technical, business, marketing, and policy considerations to increase EV penetration in Durham.  The teams operated under a hypothetical $10 million budget and strategies were to align with the Justice40 initiative, the federal plan to ensure that forty percent of the benefits of new clean transit jobs flow to “disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”

Participants were encouraged to consider “potential barriers to EV adoption, the existing distribution of EV charging stations, and opportunities for community and business involvement” and to be creative.

My team was comprised of students from a range of scholarly backgrounds, from a freshman beginning a mechanical engineering track to a grad student at the Nicholas School with prior work and research in school bus electrification policy.  For our plan, we spent little time discussing electric cars and instead focused on expanding access to electric micro-mobility and electrified public transportation.  

Our team consulted this map from the Durham Bike+Walk Implementation plan in determining that electric cars are not a silver bullet
(map: durhamnc.gov)

We had many reasons for doing so.  Many Durham residents don’t own cars, so the likelihood of increasing the adoption of electric cars in a timely and affordable manner seems low.  Countries around the world are instead focusing on expanding e-bike access, citing, in addition to climate and affordability concerns, the desire to move away from the safety issues and traffic burden of car-centric urban design. 

We saw Durham, which is expected to double in population in just twenty-five years, as a city perfectly positioned to develop around micro-mobility and robust public transportation before it’s too late and set an example for growing urban centers across the country.  We used our $10 million to add bike lanes, fund electric buses, and subsidize electric bikes across income levels.

Our team placed second (no big deal!) and walked away with a full stomach and a rekindled spark to break the Duke bubble and get involved in the exciting development of the Bull City.

My winnings!
By Addie Geitner, Class of 2025

Why Do Some Dogs Need High Chairs, and How Can Genetics Help?

Sticky post
Jake, a German shepherd dog in a Bailey chair. Dogs with megaesophagus must eat in a vertical position to help food travel to their stomachs.
Photo credit: Beth Grant

Some dogs have to eat in a high chair—or, more specifically, a Bailey Chair. The chair keeps them in a vertical position while they eat so that gravity can do the work their bodies can’t: moving food from the mouth to the stomach.

These dogs have megaesophagus, an esophagus disorder that can prevent dogs from properly digesting food and absorbing nutrients. When you swallow a bite of food, it travels down a muscular tube, the esophagus, to the stomach. In humans, the esophagus is vertical, so our esophageal muscles don’t have to fight against gravity. But because dogs are quadrupeds, a dog’s esophagus is more horizontal, so “there is a greater burden on peristaltic contractions to transport the food into the stomach.” In dogs with megaesophagus, the esophagus is dilated, and those contractions are less effective. Instead of moving properly into the stomach, food can remain in the esophagus, exacerbating the problem and preventing proper digestion and nutrient absorption. 

Leigh Anne Clark, Ph.D., an associate professor at Clemson University, recently spoke at Duke about megaesophagus in dogs and its genetic underpinnings. She has authored dozens of publications on dog genetics, including five cover features. Her research primarily involves “[mapping] alleles and genes that underlie disease in dogs.” In complex diseases like megaesophagus, that’s easier said than done. “This disease has a spectrum,” Clark says, and “Spoiler: that makes it more complicated to map.”

Clinical signs of megaesophagus, or mega for short, include regurgitation, coughing, loss of appetite, and weight loss. (We might use the word “symptom” to talk about human conditions, but “a symptom is something someone describes—e.g., I feel nauseous. But dogs can’t talk, so we can only see ‘clinical signs.’”) Complications of mega can include aspiration pneumonia and, in severe cases, gastroesophageal intussusception, an emergency situation in which dogs “suck their stomach up into their esophagus.”

Leigh Anne Clarke of Clemson University

Sometimes megaesophagus resolves on its own with age, but when it doesn’t it requires lifelong management. Mega has no cure, but management can involve vertical feeding, smaller and more frequent meals, soft foods, and sometimes medication. Even liquid water can cause problems, so some dogs with mega receive “cubed water,” made by adding a “gelatinous material” to water, instead of a normal water bowl.

In dogs, mega can be either congenital, meaning present at birth, or acquired. In cases of acquired megaesophagus, the condition is “usually secondary to something else,” and the root cause is often never determined. (Humans can get mega, too, but as with acquired mega in dogs, mega in humans is usually caused by a preexisting condition. The best human comparison, according to Clark, might be achalasia, a rare disorder that causes difficulty swallowing.) Clark’s current research focuses on the congenital form of the disease in dogs.

Her laboratory recently published a paper investigating the genetic foundation of mega. Unlike some diseases, mega isn’t caused by just one genetic mutation, so determining what genes might be at play required some genetic detective work. “You see mega across breeds,” Clark says, which suggests an environmental component, but the disease is more prevalent in some breeds than others. For instance, 28 percent of all diagnoses are in German shepherds. That was a “red flag” indicating that genes were at least partly responsible.

Clark and her collaborators chose to limit their research study to German shepherds. Despite including a wide range of dogs in the study, they noticed that males were significantly overrepresented. Clark thinks that estrogen, a hormone more abundant in females, may have a protective effect against mega.

Clark and her team performed a genome-wide association study (GWAS) to look for alleles that are more common in dogs with mega. One allele that turned out to be a major risk factor was a variant of the MCHR2 gene, which plays a role in feeding behaviors. In breeds where mega is overrepresented, like German shepherds, “we have a situation where the predominant allele in the population is also the risk allele,” says Clark.

Using the results of the study, they developed a test that can identify which version of the gene a given dog has. The test, available at veterinary testing companies, is designed “to help breeders reduce the frequency of the risk allele and to plan matings that are less likely to produce affected puppies.”

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Duke’s Women Engineers Conquer a Texas-Sized Career Fair

Sticky post

I never would have imagined a scenario where a blazer, a folder of 30 resumes, and a cowboy hat were all packed together in the same suitcase.

Yet these are the items I found sprawled across my floor on the eve of Wednesday, October 20, as I prepared to fly to Houston to attend the 2022 Society of Women Engineers Conference in Houston, Texas.

Members of the Duke Chapter of the Society of Women Engineers attend the annual conference in Houston, Texas. (I’m third from left in front row)

The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) is an international organization that empowers and advocates for women in engineering and technology. Founded in 1950, SWE is on a mission to establish engineering as an attractive profession to women, and provide the resources and opportunities necessary for them to pursue it. Through training programs, scholarships, and outreach, SWE builds leadership skills, creates opportunities, and promotes inclusion. The global network of women engineers across all ages and disciplines creates a valuable support system for underrepresented individuals in engineering.

The SWE conference is the world’s largest conference for women in engineering and technology. It has occurred on an annual basis ever since 1951 when the first convention was held in New York City. In the past few years, the SWE conference has been known to attract 8,000+ attendees, continuously growing and breaking attendance records.

Duke SWE members land in Houston airport after a three hour flight from Durham, eagerly anticipating the start of the conference the next morning.

Like many colleges, Duke has a SWE student chapter, and every year takes people to the national conference. This year, 22 students were able to attend the three-day conference, with their flights and hotel costs covered.

The weekend was full of inspirational keynote speakers, carefully crafted workshops, and endless opportunities to meet powerful and impressive female engineers from across the country. For the Duke students, the weekend was additionally a meaningful bonding experience, and a significant moment in the pursuit of our academic and professional goals.

For many attendees, the main event is the career fair, which takes place during the first and second days of the conference. Not having any experience at a nationwide conference, I was expecting an event similar to your average college career fair: cardboard posters on folding tables. This could not have been further from the truth for the SWE conference!

Companies had massive set-ups, towering displays, signs hanging from the ceiling, carpeting laid out underneath, tables and chairs, and a dozen employees representing the same company. The room itself was so big you couldn’t see one end from the other side. 

The career fair, which spans two days of the conference, is a main component of the conference for many attendees. With over 300 companies in attendance, there were plentiful opportunities for internships, jobs, and networking.

Crowds began to gather for half an hour before the fair began. Once the doors opened, the waves of people surged in and immediately dispersed, weaving between the booths and racing to their first destination. 

After separating from my peers and walking around a bit to get a feel for the environment, I gave myself a pep talk, pulled one resume out of my folder, and walked up to my first booth. After scanning a QR code to register, I was asked about my major and then directed to the right employee to talk to.

She scanned over my resume for about twenty seconds before slapping a post-it note on it, handing it to a man behind her, and instructing me to “go with him.”

Along with a few other nervous students, the man began leading us on a walk past all the booths. We reached the end of the room and kept walking, through a small opening in a big partition that stretched across the entire room. On the other side, we emerged into a much quieter atmosphere: an equally large room full not of booths, but of curtains. Dozens of rows of small rooms, created by curtain partitions, were set up for each company. After being directed to yet another person, I was brought inside one of the ominous curtain rooms for a spontaneous 15 minute interview.

I had heard from peers that on-site interviews are often conducted, but I was not prepared for the spontaneous and vastly accelerated nature of the process. After the interview, I was released back into the career fair to race to the next booth.

Almost every student left the conference with some level of success.

Throughout the day, constant messages were shot through various group chats announcing updates, interviews, new contacts, and other exciting revelations. It was easy to lose track of each other throughout the fair, but every notification felt like a wave of breaking news.

The conference is supposed to be an accelerated recruitment process – many people made connections or discovered opportunities that may lead to eventual jobs or internships. In an environment that was so uplifting and supportive of women, it was easy to celebrate each other’s victories, and be reminded that one person’s success was shared by all of us.

Duke women in engineering across grades and disciplines bond and relax over dinner after a long day at the conference.

While the first night at the hotel was spent mostly frantically preparing for interviews the next day, the second and third nights allowed plenty of time for group outings and exploring the city of Houston.

Whether looking for internships or full-time opportunities, female engineering students at Duke were brought together across grades and disciplines to share in an incredibly inspirational and memorable weekend. Through the highs and lows of the weekend, we were able to participate in the same shared experiences: stressing over interviews, navigating networking, and exploring our futures as engineers.

And, of course, one more extremely monumental memory from the trip was pretending to be part of a bachelorette party on the flight home (good thing we brought a cowboy hat!).

By Kyla Hunter, Class of ’23

Duke’s Most-Cited — The Scholars Other Scientists Look To

Sticky post

It’s not enough to just publish a great scientific paper.

Somebody else has to think it’s great too and include the work in the references at the end of their paper, the citations. The more citations a paper gets, presumably the more important and influential it is. That’s how science works — you know, the whole standing-on-the-shoulders-of-giants thing.

So it always comes as a chest swelling affirmation for Dukies when we read all those Duke names on the annual list of Most Cited Scientists, compiled by the folks at Clarivate.

This year is another great haul for our thought-leaders. Duke has 30 scientists among the nearly 7,000 authors on the global list, meaning their work is among the top 1 percent of citations by scientific field and year, according to Clarivate’s Web of Science citation index.

As befits Duke’s culture of mixing and matching the sciences in bold new ways, most of the highly cited are from “cross-field” work.

Duke’s Most Cited Are:

Biology and Biochemistry

Charles A. Gersbach       

Robert J. Lefkowitz         

Clinical Medicine

Scott Antonia

Christopher Bull Granger             

Pamela S. Douglas           

Adrian F. Hernandez      

Manesh R. Patel               

Eric D. Peterson

Cross-Field

Chris Beyrer

Stefano Curtarolo

Renate Houts 

Tony Jun Huang  

Ru-Rong Ji

Jie Liu

Jason Locasale  

Edward A. Miao

David B. Mitzi    

Christopher B. Newgard

John F. Rawls   

Drew T. Shindell

Pratiksha I. Thakore       

Mark R. Wiesner              

Microbiology

Barton F. Haynes             

Neuroscience and Behavior

Quinn T. Ostrom              

Pharmacology and Toxicology

Evan D. Kharasch

Plant and Animal Science

Xinnian Dong    

Sheng Yang He                 

Psychiatry and Psychology

Avshalom Caspi

William E. Copeland

E. Jane  Costello               

Terrie E. Moffitt

Social Sciences

Michael J. Pencina          

John W. Williams              

Congratulations, one and all! You’ve done us proud again.

Page 1 of 94

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén