Research Blog

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

Students exploring the Innovation Co-Lab

Reducing Food Insecurity and Creating Community at Durham’s Catawba Trail Farm

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At Catawba Trail Farm in north Durham, the idea of community remains at the forefront of all that they do. A space dedicated to growing, learning, and diligent work, the farm invites all willing to become involved. Recently, students at Duke University had the opportunity to bear witness to these qualities, through a course taught by Dr. Brian McAdoo of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Picture of volunteers at Catawba Trail Farm (Credit: @UrbanCommunityAgrinomics on Instagram.)

The Catawba Trail Farm was once known as Snowhill Plantation, yet despite this co-founder Delphine Sellars refers to it as “a place of healing.” This is because Sellars recognizes the importance of acknowledging the past when attempting to shape the future. Sellars’ focus is on taking land formerly used to abuse enslaved people and transforming it into a place of empowerment and healing. This is seen through the connection between the farm and McAdoo’s course here at Duke. The course, “Exploring Earth Sciences: Surviving Anthropocene in North Carolina,” explores a range of themes such as food insecurity, environmental justice, and global change through the context of environmental studies. Additionally, McAdoo’s course has what is referred to as the ‘Catawba Trail Mission’ where Duke students, in partnership with Catawba Trail Farm, seek to not only target this food insecurity within the community, but also uncover the history hidden within the roots of the farm.  

Picture of Delphine Sellars (Credit: @UrbanCommunityAgrinomics on Instagram.)

The most recent progress of this mission can be seen through the class’s work with the gravesite of William Johnston, who established Snowhill Plantation in 1763. Through a geophysical survey, the class identified several unmarked graves of enslaved people buried with the Johnston family. Through this they have worked to trace their lineages to their loved ones and inform them of their findings. The class has also used this same technology to help identify and ensure that the traits and key aspects of the land are fully understood and respected. 

Picture of volunteers at Catawba Trail Farm (Credit: @UrbanCommunityAgrinomics on Instagram.)

Through the work between Duke and Catawba Trail Farm, students are granted the opportunity to take their learning beyond the textbook and truly begin to understand the depth behind the land outside of technological gadgets. Catawba Trail Farm helps in this journey while simultaneously learning more about the rich nature of the land and its inhabitants. This constant sense of learning and support is what makes students such as Duke master’s student, Roo Jackson, comfortable in saying Catawba Trail Farm “feels like home.” 

Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027
Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027

Democracy Threatened: Can We Depolarize Digital Spaces?

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“Israeli Mass Slaughter.” “Is Joe Biden Fit to be President?” Each time we log on to social media, potent headlines encircle us, as do the unwavering and charged opinions that fill the comment spaces. Each like, repost, or slight interaction we have with social media content is devoured by the “algorithm,” which tailors the space to our demonstrated beliefs.

So, where does this leave us? In our own personal “echo chamber,” claim the directors of Duke’s Political Polarization Lab in a recent panel.

Founded in 2018, the lab’s 40 scholars enact cutting edge research on politics and social media. This unique intersection requires a diverse team, evident in its composition of seven different disciplines and career stages. The research has proven valuable: beneficiaries include government policy-makers, non-profit organizations, and social media companies. 

The lab’s recent research project sought to probe the underlying mechanisms of our digital echo-chambers: environments where we only connect with like-minded individuals. Do we have the power to shatter the glass and expand perspectives? Researchers used bots to generate social media content of opposing party views. The content was intermixed with subject’s typical feeds, and participants were evaluated to see if their views would gradually moderate.

The results demonstrated that the more people paid attention to the bots, the more grounded in their viewpoints or polarized they became. 

Clicking the iconic Twitter bird or new “X” logo signifies a step onto the battlefield, where posts are ambushed by a flurry of rebuttals upon release.

Chris Bail, Professor of Political and Data Science, shared that 90% of these tweets are generated by a meager 6% of Twitter’s users. Those 6% identify as either very liberal or very conservative, rarely settling in a midde area. Their commitment to propagating their opinions is rewarded by the algorithm, which thrives on engagement. When reactive comments filter in, the post is boosted even more. The result is a distorted perception of social media’s community, when in truth the bulk of users are moderate and watching on the sidelines. 

Graphic from the Political Polarization Lab presentation at Duke’s 2024 Research & Innovation Week

Can this be changed? Bail described the exploration of incentives for social media users. This means rewarding both sides, fighting off the “trolls” who wreak havoc on public forums. Enter a new strategy: using bots to retweet top content creators that receive engagement from both parties.

X’s (formerly Twitter’s) Community Notes feature allows users to annotate tweets that they find misleading. This strategy includes boosting notes that annotate bipartisan creators, after finding that notes tended towards the polarized tweets.

 The results were hard to ignore: misinformation decreased by 25-35%, said Bail, saving companies millions of dollars.

Social media is democracy’s public square

Christopher bail

Instead of simply bashing younger generation’s fixation on social media, Bail urged the audience to consider the bigger picture.

“What do we want to get out of social media?” “

What’s the point and how can it be made more productive?”

On a mission to answer these questions, the Polarization Lab has set out to develop evidence-based social media by creating custom platforms. In order to test the platforms out, researchers prompted A.I. to create “digital twins” of real people, to simulate users. 

Co-Director Alex Volfovsky described the thought process that led to this idea: Running experiments on existing social media often requires dumping data into an A.I. system and interpreting results. But by building an engaging social network, researchers were able to manipulate conditions and observe causal effects.

How can the presence of a “like button” or “repost” feature affect our activity on platforms? On LinkedIn, even tweaking recommended users showed that people gain the most value from semi-distant connections.

In this exciting new field, unanswered questions ring loud. It can be frightening to place our trust in ambiguous algorithms for content moderation, especially when social media usage is at an all-time high.

After all, the media I consume has clearly trickled into my day-to-day decisions. I eat at restaurants I see on my Instagram feed, I purchase products that I see influencers promote, and I tend to read headlines that are spoon-fed to me. As a frequent social media user, I face the troubling reality of being susceptible to manipulation.

Amidst the fear, panelists stress that their research will help create a safer and more informed culture surrounding social media in pressing efforts to preserve democracy.

Post by Ana Lucia Ochoa, class of 2026
Post by Ana Lucia Ochoa, class of 2026

The HIV/AIDS Epidemic: Revisiting the Early Days of a Global Health Crisis

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On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first cases of a mysterious disease afflicting young, otherwise healthy men in a tiny suburb of Los Angeles, California. The disease, now known as AIDS, would go on to infect 85.6 million people around the world, sparking an epidemic that persists to this day.

On February 6, 2024, Duke’s Global Health Institute hosted a conversation with Dr. James Curran and Dr. Kevin M. De Cock, both former leaders at the CDC, about their experiences on the frontlines of the AIDS crisis in the earliest days of this epidemic. The conversation was moderated by Dr. Chris Beyrer and Dr. Nwora Lance Okeke, two Duke researchers in infectious disease.

Pictured from left to right: Dr. James Curran and Dr. Kevin M. De Cock

The Origin of the Epidemic

The first cases of AIDS were reported by Dr. Michael Gottlieb, a young immunologist from UCLA. His groundbreaking findings, published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, described “previously healthy gay men from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, who presented with rare opportunistic infections,” said De Cock. These infections, known as PCP (Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia) and KS (Kaposi’s sarcoma), were extremely rare. Upon observation, Gottlieb identified a startling commonality among the cases: they were all sexually active gay men.

Michael Gottlieb: The Rutgers Alumnus Who First Identified the Deadly  Disease We Now Call AIDS | New Brunswick, NJ Patch

These findings “didn’t fit into any organizational unit at the CDC,” so a multispecialty task force was formed. Led by Curran, it recruited experts in STIs, parasitology, virology, cancer, and more.

Tracking the Epidemic

At the start of the epidemic, cases were phoned into the CDC by individual doctors. But this quickly became inadequate. The epidemic was growing fast, and CDC phone lines could not keep up. “The CDC, therefore, developed a surveillance case definition for the syndrome,” De Cock explained. “Cases meeting this definition were reported through health departments to the CDC.”

“I think we were able with the case definition for surveillance, to take advantage of the fact that all of these conditions were very serious and so unusual that the physician would say ‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’…,” Curran said. “The other conditions were far less specific and far less useful for tracking the disease.”

In October 1981, these tracking protocols helped identify AIDS as a sexually transmitted disease. A national case-control study found that sexual activity was a leading risk factor, and a cluster of cases in 10 US cities linked via sexual contact was discovered. “People just didn’t want to believe it,” Curran said. “They wanted to believe that it wasn’t something transmissible.” 

Expanding Epidemic

Over the next year, the epidemic expanded to include injection drug users, heterosexual partners of bisexual men, people of Haitian descent, and infants. But perhaps most surprising was the transmission occurring through blood transfusion. In December 1982, a case of AIDS-like illness was reported in a 20-month-old infant after receiving blood from a donor who later developed the virus.

“Until that December report of the infant, the mainstream media had actually paid very little attention to AIDS. But that suddenly changed,” said De Cock. “While AIDS was seen as a problem of marginalized groups… it was easy to ignore. But anyone might need a blood transfusion.”

In the following years, rumors surrounding transmission and contact sparked nationwide panic. Fear of contracting the disease caused AIDS patients to lose their jobs and housing. Although the CDC provided up-to-date information on the nature of the virus, quelling public fear was extremely difficult. “AIDS proved that you can’t separate prevention and treatment,” Curran explained.

Modern AIDS Era

As we get close… to 100 million HIV infections since the epidemic began- have we done as well as we should have?”

Dr. Kevin M. De Cock

In 1991, researchers successfully identified HIV (Human immunodeficiency virus) as the underlying cause of AIDS. Since then, scientific understanding of the disease has greatly improved. “Our success has made AIDS more normal, which has robbed the disease of some of its mystique,” De Cock expressed. However, there is still no known cure for AIDS. The disease is a lifelong battle that wreaks havoc on the people it infects.

HIV / AIDS - Our World in Data
Source: Our World in Data

De Cock and Curran’s contributions to the AIDS epidemic fundamentally shaped our understanding of the virus. Their work shines a light on the importance of frontline research and support. Their book, entitled ‘Dispatches from the AIDS Pandemic: A Public Health Story,’ is available to read here.

Written by Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

Rosetta Reitz: The Life Behind the Music

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A 1983 New Yorker article by Whitney Balliet argued that “Women don’t have the grace and poise to play jazz.” While this comment wasn’t uncommon for the time, it certainly wasn’t universally accepted. In fact, this comment is what feminist writer and producer, Rosetta Reitz, sought to disprove through her decades-long efforts to promote underrepresented records. 

This past Tuesday Feb. 6, the “Rosetta Reitz’s Musical Archive of Care” Bass Connections team hosted a discussion pertaining to the origins, findings, and thought process of this archive. Leading this discussion were researchers Anthony Kelley, Duke Professor, and Tift Merritt, Grammy-nominated musician.  In this, the pair explored the key theme of artistic empathy utilized through the archival process. Archival artistic empathy describes the act of not making yourself the center of your findings but allowing them to enlarge your compassion. This theme was pertinent not only for Merritt’s research journey but also for that of Reitz. 

Rosetta Rietz was a feminist, historian, and producer who recognized the absence of female voices within the jazz industry and sought to find the root cause. Through her efforts she quickly recognized that the women were there, they were simply unheard. Rosetta, determined to change this fact, began to collect information about the music of these women as a means of building a platform for them in Rosetta Records. This recording company was created for the sole purpose of promoting, rediscovering, and establishing the voices of women in the jazz industry, a rarity for the time period. With exactly 97 women under her records, Reitz was unwavering in her attempts to get their music picked up by major radio stations. Rosetta Records would go on to produce eighteen albums dedicated to many talented unknown singers and even some as big as Billie Holiday.  

From L to R: Tift Merritt, Annie Koppes and Anthony Kelley (Picture taken by Yasaman Baghban)

Rosetta was truly an influential creative whose influence extended beyond that of music. She was the owner of a bookstore in Greenwich Village. She went on to write one of the first books on menopause and on the absence of women in jazz.  She was an active member in her community seeking to recognize and correct injustices. Reitz was truly someone whose compassion and artistic empathy shone through. This is not to say that attempts at not centering herself were always successful. Reitz often faced backlash from the media for appearing disingenuous due to ethical and legal concerns surrounding her work. These concerns largely apply to works such as her Jailhouse Blues record which utilized the voices and struggles of women in a Mississippi prison, released by Mississippi congress, to create a record. Many questioned if these women consented to this, how they felt to find this, and the overall ethicality in creating this.  

Bass Connections team members Lindsay Frankfort and Trisha Santanam.

The legacy of Rosetta Reitz is one full of great passion and love for the art that is jazz and women’s place within it. The Bass Connections research team has managed to bring it to life by employing their own artistic empathy. They have created a full picture of the complexities, devotion and love Rosetta had for life’s work further cementing the fact that women indeed have a rightful place within the jazz industry.  

Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027
Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027

Your AI Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know, According to an Expert

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What comes to your mind when you hear the term ‘artificial intelligence’? Scary, sinister robots? Free help on assignments? Computers taking over the world?

Pictured: Media Architect Stephen Toback

Well, on January 24, Duke Media Architect Stephen Toback hosted a lively conversation on all things AI. An expert in the field of technology and media production, Toback discussed some of the practical applications of artificial intelligence in academic and professional settings.

According to Toback, enabling machines to think like humans is the essence of artificial intelligence. He views AI as a humanities discipline — an attempt to understand human intelligence. “AI is really a digital brain. You can’t digitize it unless you know how it actually works,” he began. Although AI has been around since 1956, the past year has seen an explosion in usage. ChatGPT, for example, became the fastest-growing user application in the world in less than 6 months. “One thing I always talk about is that AI is not gonna take your job, but someone using AI will.”

During his presentation, he referenced five dominant AI platforms on the market. The first one is ChatGPT, created by OpenAI. Released to the public in November 2022, it has over 100 million users every single month. The second is BardAI, which was created by Google in March 2023. Although newer on the market, the chatbot has gained significant traction online.

Pictured: Toback explaining the recent release of Meta’s AI “Characters.”

Next, we have LLama, owned by tech giant Meta. Last September, Meta launched AI ‘characters’ based on famous celebs including Paris Hilton and Snoop Dog, which users could chat with online. “They’ve already started commercializing AI,” Toback explained.

Then there’s Claude, by Anthropic. Claude is an AI assistant for a variety of digital tasks. “Writers tend to use Claude,” Toback said. “Its language models are more attuned to text.”

And finally on Toback’s list is Microsoft Copilot, which is changing the AI game. “It’s integrating ChatGPT into the apps that we use every day. And that’s the next step in this evolution of AI tools.” Described on Microsoft’s website as ‘AI for everything you do,’ Copilot embeds artificial intelligence models into the entire Microsoft 365 suite (which includes apps such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook). “I don’t have to copy and paste into ChatGPT and come back- It’s built right into the app.” It’s also the first AI tool on the market that provides integration into a suite of applications, instead of just one.

Pictured: A presentation created by Toback using Copilot in PowerPoint

He outlined several features of the software, such as: summarizing and responding to email threads on Outlook, creating intricate presentations from a simple text document in PowerPoint, and generating interview questions and resume comparisons in Word. “There’s a great example of using AI for something that I have to do… but now I can do it a little bit better and a little bit faster.”

Throughout his presentation, Toback also touched on the practical use of ChatGPT. “AI is not perfect,” he began. “If you just ask it a question, you’re like ‘Oh that sounds reasonable’, and it might not be right.” He emphasized challenges such as the rapidly changing nature of the platform, inherent biases, and incorrect data/information as potential challenges for practical use.

“Rather than saying I don’t know, it acts a lot like a middle schooler and says it knows everything and gives you a very convincing answer.”

Stephen Toback

These challenges have been felt nationwide. In early 2023, for example, lawyers for a federal court case used ChatGPT to find previous claims in an attempt to show precedent. However, after presenting the claims to a judge, the court found that the claims didn’t actually exist. “It cited all of these fake cases that look like real citations and then the judge considered sanctions, ” said Toback. ‘AI hallucinations’ such as this one, have caused national controversy over the use and accuracy of AI-generated content. “You need to be able to double-check and triple-check anything that you’re using through ChatGPT,” Toback said.

So how can we use ChatGPT more accurately? According to Toback, there are a variety of approaches, but the main one is called prompt engineering: the process of structuring text so that it can be understood by an AI model. “Prompts are really the key to all of this,” he revealed. “The better formed your question is, the more data you’re giving ChatGPT, the better the response you’re going to get.” Below is Toback’s 6-step template to make sure you are engineering prompts correctly for ChatGPT.

Pictured: Toback’s template for ChatGPT prompt engineering

So there you have it — your 2024 AI survival guide. It’s clear from the past few years that artificial intelligence is here to stay, and with that comes a need for improved understanding and use. As AI expert Oren Etzioni proclaims, “AI is a tool. The choice about how it gets deployed is ours.”

Have more questions about AI tools such as ChatGPT? Reach out to the Duke Office of Information Technology here.

Written by Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

Computer Science Students Say: Let’s Talk About Microaggressions

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Soon after taking a seat in her high-level computer science class, Duke student Kiara de Lande surveyed the room. The realization that she was one of only three women of color washed over her. It left a tang of discomfort and confusion. In her gut, she knew that she was capable of success. But then, why were there so few students that looked like her? Doubt ensued: perhaps this was not a place for her. 

de Lande was one of five members of the student advisory board for AiiCE (Alliance for Identity-Inclusive Computing Education) who reflected on their experiences as minority students in computer science in a virtual panel held Jan. 23.

As de Lande shared her story, undergraduate Kianna Bolante nodded in agreement. She too, felt that she had to “second-guess her sense of belonging and how she was perceived.” 

Berkeley ’24 graduate Bridget Agyare added that group work is crucial to success in CS classes, stressing the need for inclusion. The harm of peer micro-aggressions was brought up, the panel emphasizing the danger of stifling minority voices: “When in groups of predominantly males,” de Lande said, “my voice is on the back-burner.”

To not feel heard is to feel isolated, compounding the slam of under-confidence. Small comments here and there. Anxiety trickling in when the professor announces a group project. Peers delegating to you the “front-end” or “design” aspects, leaving the more intricate back-end components for themselves. It’s subtle. It feels like nothing glaring enough to bring attention to. So you shove the feelings to the side.

“No one reaches this level of education by mistake,” said Duke CS graduate student Jabari Kwesi. But over time, these subtle slights chip away at the assurance in your capabilities. 

Kwesi remembers the first time he spoke to a Black female professional software engineer (SWE). “Finally,” he said, “someone who understands what you’re talking about for your experience in and outside academia.”

He made this connection in a Duke course structured to facilitate conversations between students and professionals in the technology industry. In similar efforts, the Duke organization DTech is devoted to non-males in tech. Mentors provide support with peer advisors, social gatherings, and recruiter connections. It also provides access to a database of internships, guiding members during competitive job-hunting cycles. 

As university support continues to grow, students have not shied away from taking action. Bolante, for example, created her own social computing curriculum: focused on connecting student’s identities to the course material. The initiative reflects her personal realization of finding the value in her voice. 

“My personal experiences, opinions, ideas are things no one can take away from me. My voice is my strongest asset and power,” she said. 

As I listened to the declaration, I felt the resilience behind her words. It was evident that the AiiCE panelists are united in their passion for an inclusive and action-driven community. 

Kwesi highlighted the concept of “intentionality.” As a professor, one has to be conscious of the commitment to improvement. This includes making themselves available to students and accepting feedback. Some suggestions amongst the panel were “spotlights” on impactful minorities in CS. Similarly, in every technical class, mandating a societal impact section is key. Technology does not exist in a vacuum: deployment affects real people. For example, algorithms are susceptible to biases against certain groups. Algorithms are designed for tools like resume scanners and medical evaluations. These are not just lines of code- people’s livelihoods are at stake. With the surge of developments in artificial intelligence, technology is advancing more rapidly than ever. To keep bias in check, assembling interdisciplinary teams can help ensure diverse perspectives.

Above all, we must be willing to continue this conversation. There is no singular curriculum or resource that will permanently correct inequities. Johns Hopkins ’25 graduate Rosa Gao reminded the audience that inclusivity efforts are “a practice,” and “a way of moving through space” for professors and peers alike.

It can be as simple as a quick self-evaluation. As a peer: “Am I being dismissive?” “Am I holding everyone’s opinions at an equal weight?” As a professor: “How can I create assignments that will leverage the student voice?”

Each individual experience must be valued, and even successful initiatives should continue to be reinvented. As minorities, to create positive change, we must take up space. As a greater community, we must continue to care, to discuss, and to evolve. 

By Ana Lucia Ochoa, Class of 2026

Soldier to Philanthropist: Abraham George’s Lasting Legacy at Shanti Bhavan

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From his time in the Indian military to his journey to the NYU Stern School of Business to making his mark in India through his social work, Abraham George seems to be, and indeed is, a jack of all trades. He is the founder and principal of Shanti Bhavan, a school for students born into India’s lowest socioeconomic class.

“The last 29 years since I founded Shanti Bhavan, it has been the most rewarding and satisfying part of my life – I’ve done a lot of stuff, but nothing compares to what I’ve done with this,” George said. “The satisfaction comes from the fact that the children we have worked with are able to acquire jobs in Amazon and study in schools like Duke – one of them is here!” His words were infused with unmistakable passion. The crowd cheered the former student. We experienced a collective shiver down our spines; the fruit of George’s work was right in front of us – undeniable and beautiful.

The story of his life’s work was made into a Netflix documentary called “Daughters of Destiny.” Created and produced by Vanessa Roh, it featured the lives of students at the boarding school George founded. During his talk, we saw an ABC news segment called “Shanti Bhavan: haven of peace”.

After hearing the inspirations and motivations behind the creation of this boarding school, the designation of it being a ‘haven of peace’ is irrefutable.

George didn’t start in philanthropy. As an 18-year-old he found himself in the Indian military; he was posted near Tibet (in the Salem pass) where his job was to establish gun positions in case China invaded the country, India. In subzero temperatures, he lived through it for eleven months. During his time there, he read a quote ‘there is nothing right about war, it is about who is left’.

And so, George began asking himself questions: Why was he ready to take people’s lives? What was he truly doing with his life? And what would life be like in service of others?

He embarked on a newfound journey: to create a safe space where religion, caste or class does not matter. Today, Shanti Bhavan serves as a school for all – where students are not called ‘students’ but rather ‘children’.

A crucial question still stands: does the success of Shanti Bhavan prove the effectiveness of all charitable projects? When asked, George was quick to point out the fact that without money, there is no success. Consequently, his first goal was to earn, and second was to fund. Perhaps then all charitable causes could be effective if one has funding? It’s difficult to have a concrete answer, but it goes without saying that if it is true, George’s work serves as evidence.

George moved on from the life of a solider, to pursue education in the hopes of reaching a place where he could benefit others. “Think of a world only a heart can build and never ask why” – a memorable quote from a true benevolent force, akin to angelic presence.

Post by Noor Nazir, Class of 2027





Glowing Waterdogs and Farting Rivers: A Duke Forest Research Tour

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Jonny Behrens looks for aquatic macroinvertebrates with Duke Forest Research Tour participants.

“Who would be surprised if I told you that rivers fart?”

Nick Marzolf, Ph.D., went on to explain that streams release greenhouse gases from decaying matter and gas-producing bacteria. This revelation was one of several new facts I learned at the annual Duke Forest Research Tour in December.

“First and foremost,” says Duke Forest Senior Program Coordinator Maggie Heraty, “the Duke Forest is a teaching and research laboratory.” The Office of the Duke Forest hosts an annual Research Tour to showcase research activities and connect to the wider community. “Connecting people to science and nature, and demystifying scientific research, is a key part of our goals here,” Heraty says.

Duke Forest, which consists of over 7,000 acres in  Durham, Orange, and Alamance Counties, lies within the Cape Fear and Neuse river basins, two of seventeen river basins in North Carolina. What exactly is a river basin? Heraty quoted a poetic definition from North Carolina Environmental Education:

“A river basin encompasses all the land surface drained by many finger-like streams and creeks flowing downhill into one another and eventually into one river, which forms its artery and backbone. As a bathtub catches all the water that falls within its sides and directs the water out its drain, a river basin sends all the water falling within its surrounding ridges into its system of creeks and streams to gurgle and splash downhill into its river and out to an estuary or the ocean.”

Located within the Cape Fear River Basin, the headwaters of New Hope Creek, which passes through the Korstian Division of Duke Forest, are fed by roughly 33,000 acres of land, over 5,000 of which are in the Duke Forest. Land outside of the Forest is of vital importance, too. Duke Forest is working in partnership with other local conservation organizations through the Triangle Connectivity Collaboration, an initiative to connect natural areas, create wildlife corridors, reduce habitat fragmentation, and protect biodiversity in the Triangle region.

New Hope Creek in the Korstian Division of the Duke Forest.

Dwarf waterdogs

We walked down a short trail by the creek, and the tour split into two groups. Our group walked farther along the stream to meet two herpetologists studying the elusive dwarf waterdog.

Bryan Stuart, Ph.D., Research Curator of Herpetology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and Ron Grunwald, Ph.D., Duke University Senior Lecturer Emeritus, are involved in a study looking for dwarf waterdog salamanders (Necturus punctatus) in New Hope Creek. Dwarf waterdogs are paedomorphic, Stuart said, meaning they retain larval characteristics like external gills and a flat tail throughout their lives. In fact, the genus name Necturus means “tail swimmer” in reference to the species’s flat tail.

According to Stuart, on October 3, 1954, Duke professor and herpetologist Joe Bailey collected a dwarf waterdog in New Hope Creek. It was the first record of the species in Orange County.

The Duke Forest is in the westernmost part of the species’ Piedmont range, though it extends farther west in parts of the sandhills. “To have a dwarf waterdog record in Orange County—that’s almost as interesting as it gets,” Stuart said.

Ron Grunwald and Bryan Stuart discuss dwarf waterdog research at New Hope Creek.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

In the late 1960s, Michael A. Fedak, Bailey’s graduate student, did a thesis on dwarf waterdogs in the area. His specimens are still stored in the collections of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

No one had studied this population since—until now.

Dwarf waterdogs are very sensitive to pollution and habitat disturbance, Stuart said, on top of the fact that New Hope Creek is already at the edge of the species’s habitat. When Fedak studied them several decades ago, the salamanders were abundant. Are they still?

Stuart, Grunwald, and other researchers want to find out. “The challenge of salamander biology,” Grunwald said, “is that it always happens when it’s freezing.” Surveying salamander populations, he explains, isn’t like watching birds or counting trees. It requires you to go where the salamanders are, and for dwarf waterdog research, that means dark, cold streams on nights when the water temperature is below 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Researchers bait funnel traps with chicken liver or cat food and set them underwater overnight. Sometimes they catch crayfish. Sometimes they catch nothing. And sometimes they catch exactly what they’re hoping to find: the elusive dwarf waterdog. After all this time, these slippery, nocturnal, chicken-liver-loving salamanders are still here.

Two dwarf waterdogs in a funnel trap before being released back into New Hope Creek.

Though the traps have been successful at capturing some individuals, they will never catch them all, so researchers calculate the recapture rate to estimate the total population. Imagine a bag of rice, Grunwald said. You could count each individual grain, but that would be challenging and time-consuming. Alternatively, you could pull out one grain of rice, color it, and put it back in the bag, then estimate the total number by calculating the probability of pulling out the same colored grain of rice again. In a very small bag, you might draw the same rice grain several times. But the more rice you have, the less likely you are to draw the same grain twice.

To figure out if any of the dwarf waterdogs they catch are recaptures, the researchers mark each individual with a visual implant elastomer, which is “just a fancy way of saying rubber that we can see,” Grunwald said. The material is injected under a salamander’s “armpit” with a small syringe, creating a pattern visible under ultraviolet light. With two colors (fluorescent yellow and red) and four possible injection locations (one behind each leg), there are plenty of distinct combinations. Grunwald showed us a waterdog that had already been marked. Under a UV flashlight, a spot just below its right foreleg glowed yellow.

Captured dwarf waterdogs are injected with a special rubber material that glows under a UV light. Each salamander is marked with a distinct pattern so researchers can recognize it if it’s ever recaptured.

Establishing a recapture rate is essential to predicting the total population in the area. The current recapture rate? Zero. The sample size so far is small—about a dozen individuals—and none of them have been caught twice. That’s an obstacle to statistical analysis of the population, but it’s good news for the salamanders. Every new individual is one more dwarf waterdog survivor in New Hope Creek.

Ron Grunwald with Research Tour participants looking at dwarf waterdogs in bags.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

Stream health

Next, at a different spot along the stream, we met Nick Marzolf, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar, and Jonny Behrens, a Ph.D. student, to learn more about New Hope Creek itself. Marzolf and Behrens have both been involved with aquaterrestrial biogeochemistry research in the lab of Emily Bernhardt, Ph.D., at Duke University.

Nick Marzolf (right) and Jonny Behrens discuss stream health.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

Protecting New Hope Creek requires understanding individual organisms—like dwarf waterdogs—but also temperature, precipitation, oxygen levels, pesticide runoff, and biodiversity overall. When humans get stressed, Behrens said, different organs have different physiological reactions. Similarly, different organisms in a stream play different roles and respond to stress in different ways.

Jonny Behrens and Research Tour participants look at aquatic macroinvertebrate samples.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

Behrens passed around vials containing aquatic macroinvertebrates—specimens big enough to see with the naked eye—such as the larvae of mayflies, crane flies, stoneflies, and dragonflies. They are known for being good indicators of stream health because there are many species of macroinvertebrates, and they have different tolerances to stressors like pollution or changes in water temperature.

Aquatic macroinvertebrates can indicate the health of a stream through their species diversity and abundance.
Photo provided by The Office of the Duke Forest.

The water downstream of a nearby wastewater treatment plant is much warmer in winter than other waterways in the area, so researchers see more emergent adult midges and caddisflies there than they do here. Aside from temperature, organisms need to adapt to other changing conditions like oxygen levels and storms.

“Rain is really fun to watch in streams,” Behrens said. The water level rises, pulling up organic matter, and sand bars change. You can tell how high the water got in the last storm by looking for accumulated debris on trees along river banks.

Farting rivers and the peanut butter cracker hypothesis

Marzolf studies hydrology, or “how water moves through not only the landscape but also the river itself.”

Nick Marzolf demonstrates a technique to measure gasses in streams using a syringe.

Part of his research involves measuring gases in water. Streams, like cars and cows and people, release greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane. In fact, Marzolf and colleagues hypothesize that New Hope Creek contributes more CO2 to the atmosphere per unit area than anywhere else in the Duke Forest.

Decaying matter produces CO2, but that isn’t the only source of greenhouse gasses in the creek. Microscopic organisms, like methane-producing bacteria, produce gases as well.

The “peanut butter cracker hypothesis,” Marzolf said, compares organic matter such as leaves to a cracker, while the “peanut butter,” which makes the cracker more palatable, is the microbes. Scrumptious.

Disturbing the sediment at the bottom of New Hope Creek causes bubbles to rise to the surface due to the metabolic activities of gas-producing bacteria.

Marzolf turned to Behrens. “Do you want to walk around and see if you can stir up some methane bubbles?” Behrens waded into the stream, freeing bubbles from the pressure of the overlying water keeping them in leaf mats. We watched the bubbles rise to the surface, evidence of the activities of organisms too small to see.

Behrens walks around in New Hope Creek to stir up gas bubbles from aquatic bacteria.

Restoring a stream to protect its pigtoe

Finally, Sara Childs, Executive Director of the Duke Forest, discussed stream restoration projects. Though structures in the Duke Forest like remnants of old mills and dams can alter and damage ecosystems, they can also have historical and cultural significance. Duke Forest prioritizes restoration projects that have meaningful ecological, teaching, and research benefits while honoring the history of the land.

For instance, the Patterson Mill Dam was built in the late 1700s and probably remained in use for about 100 years. The stream has already adapted to the structure’s presence, and there isn’t necessarily ongoing degradation because of it. Duke Forest restoration projects, Childs said, don’t revolve around very old structures like the Patterson Mill Dam. Instead, they are planning to remove two more recent structures that are actively eroding banks, threatening wildlife habitat, and creating impounded, oxygen-poor areas in the stream.

One of the structures they are hoping to remove is a concrete bridge that’s endangering a threatened freshwater mussel species called the Atlantic pigtoe (Fusconaia masoni). Freshwater mussels, according to Childs, require a fish species to host the developing mussel larvae on their gills, and the Atlantic pigtoe favors the creek chub (Semotilus atromaculatus). The concrete bridge forms a barrier between the pigtoe and the chub, but removing it could reunite them.

Before starting construction, they will relocate as many mussels as possible to keep them out of harm’s way.

New Hope Creek, home to waterdogs and pigtoe and farting microbes, is precious to humans as well. Heraty describes it as “a really spectacular and beautiful waterway that we are lucky to have right in our backyards here in Durham.”

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

On the — Very Cold — Ground for the Iowa Caucus

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As a kid who grew up on the west coast, the midwest has always befuddled me. This land of blizzards, corn fields, cheese, and a severe lack of ocean was a complete mystery. And to be quite frank, this was a mystery I had zero desire in solving. 

Evan Brown, Olivia Schramkoswki, Anne Dillon, Amaia Clayton, and Emily Zou at the Fox News Town Hall with Nikki Haley.

However, from January 4 to 9, I found myself in Des Moines, Iowa with a group of around 20 other Duke students. I put on my best ski gear and braved the snow to observe a truly Iowan experience — the presidential caucuses. Although we missed the caucus itself because we had to be back in Durham for the first day of classes, we had amazing opportunities to meet presidential candidates, get behind-the-scenes tours of debate stages, meet with journalists and campaign teams, and speak with Iowans to understand their voting priorities. 

“My favorite part of the trip was getting to meet all of the presidential candidates and ask them questions of my own,” said first-year political science major Evan Brown. 

Duke professor Mark Dalhouse has been taking students to the Iowa caucus for multiple election cycles starting in 2008, first at Vanderbilt, then at Elon, and now at Duke. Students who are interested in politics visit Iowa to observe rallies, volunteer for presidential campaigns, and to learn more about the Iowa caucus. He says the trip is intended to help students learn lessons in bipartisanship and make our campus less politically polarized. 

When asked about polarization on Duke’s campus, Professor Dalhouse said “I think the very first step is doing what we did in Iowa; talking to individuals and learning their story, seeing people who might have different belief systems than we do as people, not as “them.” I think this demystifies stereotypes and enables us to see that we have a lot more in common with those on the other side of the political fence than we might think.”

Vivek Ramaswamy at his rally in Toledo, IA on January 4.

The Iowa caucus is a way of nominating a party’s presidential candidate. As a party-run process, Democrats and Republicans both have their own particular methods for caucusing. For 50 years, Iowa has been the first state that each party has held their caucus in. However, after Biden took office in 2021, he changed the processes for Democrats. You can read more about that decision here. That means that this year, only Republican Iowans participated in this coveted first-primary-of-the-election-season tradition. Registered Republicans across Iowa come together in school gymnasiums, church basements, and community centers to advocate for their primary candidate of choice and submit a secret vote. 

Nikki Haley at her rally in Indianola, IA on January 6.

On the first day, we attended a Vivek Ramaswamy rally and back-to-back CNN town halls with Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. The Ramaswamy event took place in a small room in a motel; he brought out his wife and kids.

“I thought that Vivek was a very intelligent man and very well-spoken,” Brown said. “But, at that event, the solutions to our country’s problems that he proposed solidified, to me, the fact that he is not my candidate.”

Ramswamy suspended his campaign on caucus night after an underwhelming performance that he felt left no real shot at a presidential nomination. 

At the CNN town halls, we got to see the media-trained versions of Haley and DeSantis as Iowan voters asked their questions to the two candidates. 

Nikki Haley at her CNN Town Hall, with me.

The second day, we went to a DeSantis rally at a wine bar. He was accompanied by Representative Chip Roy of Texas. Freshman public policy major Amaia Clayton said, “The DeSantis rally was packed, and people seemed especially eager to engage and ask him lots of questions.” DeSantis finished second in the caucuses but suspended his campaign on January 21.

We attended a Ron DeSantis rally and got to meet him.

On the third day, we saw Haley at her own event at a vineyard. She was introduced by New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu. Clayton said, “She had a unique method of talking about her policy goals… [she] was very intentional in explaining the ‘why’ behind many of her policies.”

We also attended an event for former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson at a restaurant. As an underdog in the Iowa caucus, he dropped out of the presidential race shortly after the results came out. “It was interesting to see that when he had a much smaller audience than the other candidates, of which many were students, he altered the issues that he spent the most time talking about,” Brown said.

This year, the Republican primary candidates were heavily overshadowed by former President Donald Trump. With 51% of the votes, he was crowned the winner of the Iowa caucus only minutes into the vote counting process, proving his decisive lead in the polls. Following behind him was Ron DeSantis with 21.2% and Nikki Haley with 19.1%. Vivek Ramaswamy received 7.7% of the votes and candidates Ryan Binkley, Asa Hutchinson, and Chris Christie (who called off his campaign days before the caucus) all received less than one point. 

When speaking to voters, the candidates very clearly fell into two camps: pro-Trump and anti-Trump. Voters at Ramaswamy, Haley, and DeSantis rallies all echoed their disapproval of the chaos that tended to follow Trump. Although all three candidates had praises for Trump’s policy priorities, they emphasized his tendency to get caught up with media frenzy and make enemies. That said, Trump won every single district in Iowa except Johnson County, where he was losing to Haley by a single vote as of January 17.

Asa Hutchinson at his event in Waukee, IA on January 7.

On the topic of Trump, Professor Dalhouse said, “Trump changed this Caucus just by the steady accumulation of his continued command of the front pages in the news. He is the story and everything else is tangential. His four trials, his successful planting of the idea that our voting system is “rigged,” and his successful articulation of the anger I referred to earlier made him the prohibitive favorite in Iowa. Also, he has a much better on the ground organization than in 2016 when Ted Cruz beat him.”

“If you crunch the numbers from this Iowa Caucus, it’s quite interesting,” Dalhouse said. “In Iowa, there are 719,000 registered Republicans. Only about 56,000 came out on Caucus Night; of those, nearly half voted AGAINST Trump. This suggests to me that he has some structural weaknesses even among Republicans. I think this also suggests the strong potential that he will bleed votes all year long into November and that number will go up if he is convicted of even one felony between now and November. I think that will give a lot more Republicans pause before voting for him. As the old baseball saying goes, ‘it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.’” 

As someone who was raised in a very Democratic area and family, I had never truly been immersed in Republican politics like I had on this trip. Although I went into the trip with caution, I can confidently say that it was an extremely eye-opening experience.

Talking with Iowan Republicans, it was obvious to see that they were Americans who had much in common with me. At the rallies, it was clear that Democrats and Republicans both saw similar problems with our country: increasing rates of mental health disorders, a broken immigration system, a lack of access to affordable housing, and much more. Obviously, the pathways to solving those problems are where the political parties tend to diverge.

This did leave me with a lot more perspective on political polarization. On one hand, common viewpoints can spark bipartisan and productive conversation. On the other, the two parties so clearly see the same things from completely different angles.

The next step for the candidates still in the running is the New Hampshire primary, which will take place on January 23. You can read more about the NH primaries and what to expect here.

Post by Emily Zou, Class of 2027

Carrying on Dr. King’s Legacy: The Fight for Equity in Obesity Treatment

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“Of all the forms of inequality” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said in a 1966 press conference, “injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhumane.”

In honor of King’s impact on public health, Duke’s dean of Trinity College Dr. Gary G. Bennett delivered a powerful address Jan. 12 at the Trent Semans Center. Entitled ‘You have to Keep Moving Forward: Obesity in High-Risk Populations,’ Bennett discussed America’s Obesity Epidemic, and its disproportionate effects on Black women.

“More than 40% of the American population has obesity,” Bennett began. Incidence rates among Black women are the highest and have been since the epidemic began in 1955. “These disparities have not closed, and in many cases, they’ve widened over the years,” Bennett said.

Raisi-Estabragh 2023

Type two diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease are just some of the health risks associated with obesity. Compared to other racial groups, Black women are more likely to suffer from these conditions, as well as die from their effects. Furthermore, it appears that the efficacy of treatment options is significantly lower for patients of African descent.

But why do such disparities exist in the first place? According to Bennett, they can be attributed to a range of internal and external factors. “There certainly are physiological variations that are worth noting here, which is perhaps a challenge in all of obesity research.”

Research published in the journal Nature in 2022 found that, while there are different forms of obesity, that have shared ‘genetic and biological underpinnings.’ Environmental factors are also driving disparities. Black women are “exposed to more obesogenic environments, food desserts,” Bennett explained.  With limited access to affordable and nutritious food, options for healthy eating are slim.

But perhaps most interestingly, Black women also have a range of sociocultural factors at play. “There are fewer within-group social pressures to lose weight,” Bennett maintained. Other sociocultural factors include higher body image satisfaction and higher weight misperception. “This is problematic in some ways,” he continued. While it protects against certain eating disorders and low self-esteem, “It does challenge your ability to achieve weight loss.”

For Black women, obesity is a complex public health issue that needs to be addressed.

But how? From medication to surgery, there are myriad potential treatment options. According to Bennett, however, the real key is lifestyle intervention. “It really is the foundation.” Comprised of three parts: reduced calorie diet, physical activity, and self-monitoring, lifestyle intervention is able to reach the widest range of participants.

Like other treatment options, the lifestyle intervention route shows racial disparities in its outcomes. Because of this, Dr. Bennett’s work focuses on developing methods that are designed with Black patients in mind.

At the forefront of his research is a new online intervention called iOTA, which stands for Interactive Obesity Treatment Approach. “This is a digital obesity approach that we designed specifically for high-risk populations.” The platform personalizes weight loss goals and feedback, which assist in program retention.

In addition, participants are equipped with coaching support from trained medical professionals. “This IOTA approach does a bunch of things,” Bennett said. “It promotes weight loss and prevents weight gain, improves cardiometabolics,” along with a host of other physical benefits. Results also show a reduction in depressive symptoms and increased patient engagement. Truly incredible.

Scholars like Bennett have continued the fight for public health equity- a fight advocated for by Dr. King many years ago. For more information on Bennett and his work, you can visit his website here.

Written by Skylar Hughes | Class of 2025

Sharing a Love of Electrical Engineering With Her Students

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Note: Each year, we partner with Dr. Amy Sheck’s students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math to profile some unsung heroes of the Duke research community. This is the seventh of eight posts.

“As a young girl, I always knew I wanted to be a scientist,” Dr. Tania Roy shares as she sits in her Duke Engineering office located next to state-of-the-art research equipment.

Dr. Tania Roy of Duke Engineering

The path to achieving her dream took her to many places and unique research opportunities. After completing her bachelor’s in India, she found herself pursuing further studies at universities in the United States, eventually receiving her Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. 

Throughout these years Roy was able to explore and contribute to a variety of fields within electrical engineering, including energy-efficient electronics, two-dimensional materials, and neuromorphic computing, among others. But her deepest passion and commitment is to engage upcoming generations with electrical engineering research. 

As an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering within Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, Tania Roy gets to do exactly that. She finds happiness in mentoring her passionate young students. They work on projects focused on various problems in fields such as Biomedical Engineering (BME) and Mechanical Engineering, but her special focus is Electrical Engineering. 

Roy walks through the facilities carefully explaining the purpose of each piece of equipment when we run into one of her students. She explains how his project involves developing hardware for artificial intelligence, and the core idea of computer vision. 

Roy in her previous lab at the University of Central Florida. (UCF photo)

Through sharing her passion for electrical engineering, Roy hopes to motivate and inspire a new generation. 

“The field of electrical engineering is expected to experience immense growth in the future, especially with the recent trends in technological development,” she says, explaining that there needs to be more interest in the field of electrical engineering for the growth to meet demand. 

The recent shortage of semiconductor chips for the industrial market is an example of this. It poses a crucial problem to the supply and demand of various products that rely on these fundamental components, Roy says. By increasing the interest of students, and therefore increasing the number of students pursuing electrical engineering, we can build a foundation for the advancement of technologies powering our society today, says Roy.

Coming with a strong background of research herself, she is well equipped for the role of advocate and mentor. She has worked with gallium nitride for high voltage breakdowns. This is when the insulation between two conductors or electrical components fails, allowing electrical current to flow through the insulation. This breakdown usually occurs when the voltage across the insulating material exceeds a certain threshold known as the breakdown voltage.

In electric vehicles, high breakdown voltage is crucial for several reasons related to the safety, performance, and efficiency of the vehicle’s electrical system, and Roy’s work directly impacts this. She has also conducted extensive research on 2D materials and their photovoltaic capabilities, and is currently working on developing brain-inspired computer architectures for machine learning algorithms. Similar to the work of her student, this research utilizes the structure of the human brain to model an architecture for AI, replicating the synapses and neural connections.

As passionate as she is about research, she shares that she used to love to go to art galleries and look at paintings, “I could do it for hours,” Roy says. Currently, if she is not actively pursuing her research, she enjoys spending time with her two young children. 

“I hope to share my dream with this new generation,” Roy concludes.

Guest post by Sutharsika Kumar, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Class of 2024

International Experience Shaped Epidemiologist’s Career Path

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Note: Each year, we partner with Dr. Amy Sheck’s students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math to profile some unsung heroes of the Duke research community. This is the sixth of eight posts.

In the complex world of scientific exploration, definitive answers often prove elusive, and each discovery brings with it a nuanced understanding that propels us forward. Dr. Dana Kristine Pasquale’s journey in public health serves as a testament to the intricate combination of exploration and redirection that have shaped her into the seasoned scientist she is today.

Pasquale said her scientific path has been  “…a nonlinear journey, that’s been a series of over-corrections. As I’ve gone from one thing to another, that hasn’t turned out to be what I expected.”

Dana Pasquale Ph.D.

Anchored in her formative years in a study abroad experience in Angola, Africa during undergraduate studies, Pasquale’s exposure to clinical challenges left an indelible mark. She keenly observed the cyclic nature of treating infections by shadowing a local physician. 

“We would treat the same people from month to month for the same kinds of infections,” she recalled. 

Things like economic and social barriers weren’t as stark there – everyone was at the same level, and there was no true impact that she could make investigating them. This realization sparked a profound understanding that perhaps a structural, community-focused intervention could holistically address healthcare needs – water, sanitation, etc. It set the course for her future research endeavors.

Upon returning to the U.S., she orchestrated a deliberate shift in her academic trajectory, choosing to immerse herself in medical anthropology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Her mission was clear: to unravel how local communities conceptualize health. Engaging with mothers and child health interventionists, she delved into health behavior, yet found herself grappling with persistent frustrations. 

“I found [health behavior] frustrating because there were still a lot of structural issues that made things impossible,” she says. “And even when you think you’re removing some of the barriers, you’re not removing the most important ones.”

 Rather than being a roadblock, this frustration became a catalyst for Pasquale, propelling her toward the realms of epidemiology and sociology. Here, the exploration of macro and structural factors aligned seamlessly with her vision for sustainable public health, providing the missing pieces to the intricate puzzle she was trying to solve. She didn’t expect to end up here until her mentor suggested going back to school for it.

As principal investigator of Duke’s RDS2 COVID-19 Research and Data Services project during the early months of the pandemic, Pasquale navigated the challenges associated with transitioning contact-tracing efforts online. Despite hurdles in data collection due to the project’s reliance on human interaction and testing, the outcome was an innovative online platform, minimizing interaction and invasiveness. This accomplishment beautifully intertwines with her ongoing work on scalable strategies to enhance efficiency in public health activities during epidemics. 

“We had a lot of younger people say that they would prefer to enter their contacts online rather than talk to someone… something that could be a companion to public health, not subverting contact-tracing, which is an essential public health activity.”

Pasquale’s expansive portfolio extends to an HIV Network Analysis for contact tracing and intelligent testing allocation. Presently, she is immersed in a project addressing bacterial hospital infections among patients and hospital personnel, a testament to her unwavering commitment to tackling critical health challenges from various angles.

When queried about her approach to mentoring and teaching, Pasquale imparts a valuable piece of wisdom from her mentor: “If you’re not completely embarrassed by the first work you ever presented at a conference, then you haven’t come far enough.” 

Her belief in the transformative power of mistakes and the non-linear trajectory in science resonates in her guidance to students, encouraging them to not only accept but embrace the inherent twists and turns in their scientific journeys. As they navigate their scientific journeys, she advocates for the importance of learning and growing from each experience, fostering resilience and adaptability in the ever-evolving landscape of scientific exploration.

Guest Post by Ashika Kamjula, North Carolina School of Math and Science, Class of 2024

Scientific Passion and the Aspirations of a Young Scientist

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Note: Each year, we partner with Dr. Amy Sheck’s students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math to profile some unsung heroes of the Duke research community. This is the fifth of eight posts.

Meet Dr. Oyindamola Adefisayo – Oyinda to her friends – a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Duke. She’s exploring bacterial factors in host-pathogen interactions using mice. 

During our interview, parallels in our journeys became clear. Even as a high school senior, I could strongly identify with Dr. Adefisayo’s work and share similar passions. I envisioned myself evolving into an inspiring scientist just like her and felt a strong connection with my aspirations as a high school senior.

Originally from Lagos, Nigeria, Dr. Adefisayo came to the U.S. via the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg. Like me, she left home at 16 for a two-year residential program for teenagers. It was filled with passionate and driven students like I’m with at NCSSM. Oyinda earned her B.A. in Biology at Clark University, specializing in the genetic basis of wing and eye development in the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster.

Her Ph.D. at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City focused on Immunology and Microbial Pathogenesis.  She studied mycobacteria, examining DNA damage response pathways, antibiotic resistance, and mutagenesis. The work connected with her knowledge of Nigeria’s high tuberculosis burden as she sought practical applications. She found that a delay in the machinery of DNA copying itself triggered a damage repair pathway called PafBC. 

Beyond the lab, Oyinda’s passion for ballroom dancing reflects her belief that science is an art, since there’s so much creativity and artistic sense that goes into being a scientist. This resonated with me too. I use painting as an outlet during my research on environmental stressors and antibiotics at NCSSM.

I was inspired by Dr. Adefisayo’s beliefs and passions. She continues her scientific career by delving deeper into protocol development, data analysis, and global knowledge-sharing. Her goal is to learn from bacterial and host genetics and contribute to  simplifying and expediting life science research for professionals worldwide.

Guest post by Emily Alam, North Carolina School of Math and Science, Class of 2024.

How Do Animals – Alone or in Groups – Get Where They’re Going?

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Note: Each year, we partner with Dr. Amy Sheck’s students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math to profile some unsung heroes of the Duke research community. This is the of fourth eight posts.

In the intricate world of biology, where the mysteries of animal behavior unfold, Dr. Jesse Granger emerges as a passionate and curious scientist with a Ph.D. in biology and a penchant for unraveling the secrets of how animals navigate their surroundings.

Her journey began in high school when she posed a question to her biology teacher about the effect of eye color on night vision. Unable to find an answer, they embarked together on a series of experiments, igniting a passion that would shape Granger’s future in science.

Jesse Granger in her lab at Duke

Granger’s educational journey was marked by an honors thesis at the College of  William & Mary that delved into the potential of diatoms, single-cell algae known for their efficiency in capturing light, to enhance solar panel efficiency. This early exploration of light structures paved the way for a deeper curiosity about electricity and magnetism, leading to her current research on how animals perceive and use the electromagnetic spectrum.

Currently, Granger is involved in projects that explore the dynamics of animal group navigation. She is investigating how animals travel in groups to find food, with collective movement and decision-making.  

Among her countless research endeavors, one project holds a special place in Granger’s heart. Her study involved creating a computational model to explore the dynamics of group travel among animals.  She found that agents, a computational entity mimicking the behavior of an animal, are way better at getting where they are going as part of a group than agents who are traveling alone.

Granger’s daily routine in the Sönke Johnson Lab revolves around computational work. While it may not seem like a riveting adventure to an outsider, to her, the glow of computer screens harbors the key to unlocking the secrets of animal behavior. Coding becomes her toolkit, enabling her to analyze data, develop models, and embark on simulations that mimic the complexities of the natural world.

Granger’s expertise in coding extends to using R for data wrangling and NetLogo, an agent-based modeling program, for simulations. She describes the simulation process as akin to creating a miniature world where coded animals follow specific rules, giving rise to emergent properties and valuable insights into their behavior. This skill set seamlessly intertwined with her favorite project, where the exploration of group dynamics and navigation unfolded within the intricate landscapes of her simulated miniature world.

In the tapestry of scientific exploration, Jesse Granger emerges as a weaver of knowledge, blending biology, physics, and computation to unravel the mysteries of animal navigation. Her journey, marked by curiosity and innovation, not only enriches our understanding of the natural world but also inspires the next generation of  scientists to embark on their unique scientific odysseys.      

Guest Post by Mansi Malhotra, North Carolina School of Science and Math, Class of 2025.

Solving More Medical Device Challenges by Teaching Others How

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Note: Each year, we partner with Dr. Amy Sheck’s students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math to profile some unsung heroes of the Duke research community. This is the third of eight posts.

Eric Richardson is a professor of the practice in Biomedical Engineering and founding director of Duke Design Health. His research and teaching centers around medical device design and innovation, with a focus on underserved communities. 

Eric Richardson, Ph.D.

Richardson has always had a strong desire to enhance people’s wellbeing. Growing up, he wanted to be a doctor, but during high school, he was drawn towards the creative and problem-solving aspects of engineering. After earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, he pivoted to biomedical engineering for graduate work. While pursuing his PhD degree, he developed a profound interest in cardiac devices. 

Through technology, Richardson has been able to impact the lives of many. He first worked in industry as a Principal R&D Engineer at Medtronic, where he helped develop transcatheter heart valves that have now helped over a million patients. However, it was his love for teaching that brought him to academia. Over the past decade as a professor, his interests have shifted towards global health and helping underserved communities. 

Richardson aims to design technology to fit the needs of people, and bridge the gap of “translation” between research and product development. During his time in industry, Richardson realized that the vast majority of medical device research doesn’t go anywhere in terms of helping patients. 

“That point of translation… is really where most technology and research dies, so I really wanted to be at that end of it, trying to figure out that pipeline of getting research, getting technology, all the way into the clinic,” Richardson says. “I would argue that is probably the hardest step of the whole process is actually getting a product together, developing it, doing the clinical trials, and doing the manufacturing and regulatory steps.” 

A prototype of Richardson’s latest device.

Through his teaching, Richardson emphasizes product design, interdisciplinary approaches, and industry-academia partnerships to best meet the needs of underserved communities. One of his favorite courses to teach is the Design Health Series, a four-course sequence that he was brought to Duke to develop. In this class, interdisciplinary teams of graduate students, ranging from medicine to business, work together to design medical devices. They learn how to identify problems in medicine, develop a solution, and translate that into an actual product. 

Richardson also encourages engineers to look at the broader picture and tackle the right problems. According to Richardson, challenges in global and emerging markets often aren’t due to a particular device, but rather, a multilayered system of care, ranging from a patient’s experience within a clinic to a country’s whole healthcare system. From this vantage point, he believes it’s important for engineers to determine where to intervene in the system, where the need is greatest, and to consider any unintended consequences. 

“I think that there is so much great talent in the world, so many exciting problems to go after. I wish and hope that people will think a little more carefully and deliberately about what problems they go after, and the consequences of the problems that they solve,” he says. 

Richardson is currently working on an abdominal brace for Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) patients – people who feel lightheaded after standing up – that is currently in clinical trials. While he is always eager to tackle different projects, as an educator, he believes the most important part of academia is training the next generation of engineers. 

“I can only do a couple projects a year, but I can teach a hundred students every year that can then themselves go and do great things.”

Guest Post by Arianna Lee, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Class of 2025.

Pioneering New Treatments in Deep Brain Stimulation for Parkinson’s Disease

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Note: Each year, we partner with Dr. Amy Sheck’s students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math to profile some unsung heroes of the Duke research community. This is the second of eight posts.

Meet a star in the realm of academic medicine – Dr. Kyle Todd Mitchell!

A man who wears many hats – a neurologist with a passion for clinical care, an adventurous researcher, and an Assistant Professor of Neurology at Duke – Mitchell finds satisfaction in the variety of work, which keeps him “driven and up to date in all the different areas.”

Dr. Mitchell holds a deep brain stimulation device.

Dr. Mitchell’s educational journey is marked by excellence, including a fellowship at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, a Neurology Residency at Washington University School of Medicine, and an M.D. from the Medical College of Georgia. Beyond his professional accolades, he leads an active life, enjoying running, hiking, and family travels for rejuvenation. 

Dr. Mitchell’s fascination with neurology ignited during his exposure to the field in medical school and residency. It was a transformative moment when he witnessed a patient struggling with symptoms experience a sudden and remarkable improvement through deep brain stimulation. This therapy involves the implantation of a small electrode in the brain, offering targeted stimulation to control symptoms and bringing relief to individuals grappling with the challenges of Parkinson’s Disease.

“You don’t see that often in medicine, almost like a light switch, things get better and that really hooked me,” he said. The mystery and complexity of the brain further captivated him. “Everything comes in as a bit of a mystery, I liked the challenge of how the brain is so complex that you can never master it.” 

Dr. Mitchell’s research is on improving deep brain stimulation to alleviate the symptoms of  Parkinson’s disease, the second most prevalent neurodegenerative disorder, which entails a progressive cognitive decline with no cure. Current medications exhibit fluctuations, leading to tremors and stiffness as they wear off. Deep brain stimulation (DBS), FDA-approved for over 20 years, provides a promising alternative. 

Dr. Mitchell’s work involves creating adaptive algorithms that allow the device to activate when needed and deactivate so it is almost “like a thermostat.” He envisions a future where biomarkers recorded from stimulators could predict specific neural patterns associated with Parkinson’s symptoms, triggering the device accordingly. Dr. Mitchell is optimistic, stating that the “technology is very investigational but very promising.”

A key aspect of Dr. Mitchell’s work is its interdisciplinary nature, involving engineers, neurosurgeons, and fellow neurologists. Each member of the team brings a unique expertise to the table, contributing to the collaborative effort required for success. Dr. Mitchell emphasizes, “None of us can do this on our own.”

Acknowledging the challenges they face, especially when dealing with human subjects, Dr. Mitchell underscores the importance of ensuring research has a high potential for success. However, the most rewarding aspect, according to him, is being able to improve the quality of life for patients and their families affected by debilitating diseases.

Dr. Mitchell has a mindset of constant improvement, emphasizing the improvement of current technologies and pushing the boundaries of innovation. 

“It’s never just one clinical trial — we are always thinking how we can do this better,” he says. 

The pursuit of excellence is not without its challenges, particularly when attempting to improve on already effective technologies. Dr. Mitchell juggles his hats of being an educator, caregiver, and researcher daily. So let us tip our own hats and be inspired by Dr. Mitchell’s unwavering dedication to positively impact the lives of those affected by neurological disorders.

Guest post by Amy Lei, North Carolina School of Science and Math, Class of 2025.

From Occupational Therapy to Stroke Research

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Note: Each year, we partner with Dr. Amy Sheck’s students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math to profile some unsung heroes of the Duke research community. This is the first of 8 posts.

Dr. Kimberly Hreha’s journey to studying stroke patients was not a straightforward one, but it started very early.

“My mom was a special ed teacher, and so I would go into her class and volunteer. There was an occupational therapist I met and they really kind of drove my decision to become an occupational therapist.” 

After earning a masters degree in occupational therapy, Hreha worked as an OT for 5 years and became fascinated by stroke survivors and ways to help them live their lives normally again. She was able to do this when she moved to the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation and began working with a neurologist to study spatial neglect.

Kimberly Hreha and her Prism Adaptation goggles.

“If a stroke happens in the right hemisphere of the brain, the person neglects the left side of space,” Hreha said. “Imagine yourself standing in a room, and I want you to describe to me what the space is. [You would say] Oh my dresser’s on the right side, my bed’s on the right, my picture frame’s on the right. And you would not tell me anything on the left.” 

She further explained that this is not due to blindness in the left eye, the left eye usually can see just fine, it’s simply that the brain ignores the entire left side of space. 

Hreha co-developed a solution and treatment for this issue. It uses a pair of goggles with modified lenses, to move you into left space. I got to try it out to see how it worked.

Hreha first had me touch my hand to my chest and then touch a pen she was holding. I did this easily without the goggles on. When I tried again with the goggles on, I completely missed and put my finger too far to the right. I kept trying to touch the pen with the goggles on until I had retrained my brain to touch it consistently. Next, she had me take the goggles off and try touching the pen again. I went to touch the pen, but I missed it because my finger went too far to the left! 

Hreha explained to me that she had just gotten me into left space. In stroke patients with left spatial neglect, she told me, they could use the goggles to help train them to stop neglecting left space, helping them to vastly improve their lives. 

The goggle therapy, formally called prism adaptation, is a simple treatment that is practiced for 20 minutes a day for 10 days. For this Hreha won the Young Investigator Award in Post-Acute Stroke Rehabilitation in 2018 for her contribution to stroke research. Seeing her passion for her treatment and her happiness to have created something that helps stroke patients was very gratifying for me.

Hreha is also working on finding a connection between stroke patients and dementia, something that she hopes will further help the stroke survivor community. This is a research project that is ongoing for her, and one that she hopes to gain valuable data analysis and research practices skills from.  

Finally, she talked to me about her goals for the future. Hreha hopes to do a collaborative study with people at the low-vision clinic, get a grant for her prism adaptation research, and create a right brain stroke clinic at Duke to be able to do large scale research to help right brain stroke patients. 

As a researcher, she still also finds time to keep up her OT practice, by working as an OT one full day each month. Keeping true to her love of helping others, she said, “That little part of that clinical time just reminds me why I’m doing the research I’m doing. And that when I’m doing the data work, it is, at the end of the day, about that person who is in front of me in the clinic.”

Guest Post by Prithu Kolar, Class of 2025, North Carolina School of Science and Math.

Inventors, Assemble: The Newest Gadgets Coming Out of Duke

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What do a smart toilet, an analog film app, and metamaterial computer chips have in common? They were all invented at Duke!

The Office for Translation & Commercialization—which supports Duke innovators bringing new technologies to market—recently hosted its fifth annual Invented at Duke celebration. With nine featured inventors and 300 attendees, it was an energetic atmosphere to network and learn.

Attendees mingle in Penn Pavilion. Credit: Brian Mullins Photography.

When event organizer Fedor Kossakovski was selecting booths, the name of the game was diversity—from medicine to art, from graduate students to faculty. “Hopefully people feel like they see themselves in these [inventors] and it’s representative of Duke overall,” he said. Indeed, as I munched through my second Oreo bar from the snack table and made the rounds, this diversity became apparent. Here are just two of the inventions on display:

Guided Medical Solutions

The first thing you’ll notice at Jacob Peloquin’s booth is a massive rubber torso.

As he replaces a punctured layer of rubber skin with a shiny new one, Peloquin beckons us over to watch. Using his OptiSETT device, he demonstrates easy insertion and placement of a chest tube.

“Currently, the method that’s used is you make an incision, and then place your fingers through, and then take the tube and place that between your fingers,” Peloquin explained. This results in a dangerously large incision that cuts through fascia and muscle; in fact, one-third of these procedures currently end in complications.

Peloquin’s device is a trocar—a thin plastic cylinder with a pointed tip at one end and tubing coming out of the other. It includes a pressure-based feedback system that tells you exactly how deep to cut, avoiding damage to the lungs or liver, and a camera to aid placement. Once the device is inserted, the outer piece can be removed so only the tubing remains.

Peloquin demonstrates his OptiSETT device. Credit: Brian Mullins Photography.

Peloquin—a mechanical engineering graduate student—was originally approached by the surgeons behind OptiSETT to assist with 3D printing. “They needed help, so I kind of helped those initial prototypes, then we realized there might be a market for this,” he said. Now, as he finishes his doctorate, he has a plethora of opportunities to continue working on OptiSETT full-time—starting a company, partnering with the Department of Defense, and integrating machine learning to interpret the camera feed.

It’s amazing how much can change in a couple years, and how much good a rubber torso can do.

GRIP Display

This invention is for my fellow molecular biology enthusiasts—for the lovers of cells, genes, and proteins!

The theme of Victoria Goldenshtein’s booth is things that stick together. It features an adorable claw machine that grabs onto its stuffed animal targets, and a lime green plastic molecule that can grab DNA. Although the molecule looks complex, Goldenshtein says its function is straightforward. “This just serves as a glue between protein and the DNA [that encodes it].”

Goldenshtein—a postdoctoral associate in biomedical engineering—uses her lime green molecular model to demonstrate GRIP’s function. Credit: Brian Mullins Photography.

Goldenshtein applies this technology to an especially relevant class of proteins—antibodies. Antibodies are produced by the immune system to bind and neutralize foreign substances like disease. They can be leveraged to create drug therapies, but first we need to know which gene corresponds to which antibody and which disease. That’s where GRIP steps in.

“You would display an antibody and you would vary the antibody—a billion different variations—and attach each one to the system. This grabs the DNA,” Goldenshtein said.

Then, you mix these billions of antibody-DNA pairs with disease cells to see which one attaches. Once you’ve found the right one, the DNA is readily available to be amplified, making an army of the same disease-battling antibody. Goldenshtein says this method of high-throughput screening can be used to find a cancer cure.

Although GRIP be but small, its applications are mighty.

Explore Other Booths

  • Coprata: a smart toilet that tracks your digestive health
  • inSoma Bio: a polymer that aids soft-tissue reconstruction
  • Spoolyard: a platform for exploring digital footage with analog film techniques
  • FaunaLabs: smart watches for our furry friends
  • G1 Optics: a tonometer to automatically detect eye pressure
  • TheraSplice: precision RNA splicing to treat cancer
  • Neurophos: metamaterial photonics for powering ultra-fast AI computation

As I finished my last Oreo bar and prepared for the trek back to East Campus, I was presented with a parting gift—a leather notebook with “Inventor” embossed on the cover. “No pressure,” said the employee who was handing them out with a wink.

I thought about the unique and diverse people I’d met that night—an undergraduate working in the Co-Lab, an ECE graduate student, and even a librarian from UNC—and smiled. As long as we each keep imagining and scribbling in our notebooks, there’s no doubt we can invent something that changes the world.

Post by Michelle Li, Class of 2027

Highlights from the Peace Lab Innovation Showcase

Gideon Kapalasa of UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health
Gideon Kapalasa of UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health

This fall, the Sanford School of Public Policy hosted a Peace Lab Innovations Showcase, where master’s students from Duke and the University of North Carolina shared their ideas for resolving problems surrounding different forms of conflict, injustices, and violence. The objective of the class ‘Introduction to Peace and Conflict Resolutions’ was to introduce the multi-disciplinary field of Peace and Conflict Studies as a foundation for the Rotary Peace Studies curriculum. 

The showcase featured various presentations ranging from ‘Empowerment Exercises for Self-Exploration’ to ‘The Circle of Life: Peace in an Age of Broken Cycles’. One presentation, specifically, caught my eye.

The author Gideon Kapalasa, a master’s student at UNC, presented his take on building bridges of peace in Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi. He has been researching the camp for years and just recently moved to the U.S. to pursue his master’s degree.

Kapalasa’s research focused on empowering young men in the Dzaleka Refugee Camp. He explained the importance of engaging young men in schools, and other skill-building activities – with a crucial focus on their mental well-being. With his work, he hopes to achieve improved resilience within children, leading to improved life chances – bringing some level of degree to the neighborhoods of Malawi.

Another student and author, Anna Hallahan, focused on ‘The Art of Peace’. Her research focused on war and peace through an artistic lens. Through her project, she hopes to ponder questions such as ‘How has peace imagery evolved?’ and ‘How does the story of peace propaganda extend beyond the absence of war?’. In her presentation, she gave numerous examples of how the production of art can encourage and manipulate the mindset surrounding sensitive topics such as war – therefore, playing an intrinsic role in conflict resolution.

To witness the passion and unique ideas of master’s students was a refreshing reminder that our world has hope and research seems to be the perfect pathway to achieve that!

Post by Noor Nazir, class of 2027

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