Research Blog

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

“News for the Rich, White, and Blue”: Nikki Usher on her new book and the state of American journalism

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Erik Carter

News organizations are facing an economic crisis

In their battle for survival, they are “realigning their priorities in ways that favor audiences who are willing to pay.” And those who are willing to pay tend to be rich, white, and politically blue.

On November 3, as part of the DeWitt Wallace Center’s Fall 2021 Information Inequalities Speaker Series, author and University of Illinois associate professor Nikki Usher discussed her new book News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism.

Usher began by explaining that as newspapers face “market failure,” only non-geographical news is in a position to survive. As news becomes a private good (The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The New York Times come to mind), the result is inconsistent and unequal access to news. 

According to Usher, 1800 local communities lack any regular access to local news. Usher stated that political consequences result when news organizations pull back from places that don’t exhibit that aforementioned willingness to pay. 

She gave an example of one such consequence: many journalists had their “heads in the sand” about the rising tides of populism in rural America. As a result, they were blindsided when Trump won the election. But the win simply revealed what had been the case all along. 

The New York Times editor Dean Baquet acknowledged this after the election: “We’ve got to do a much better job of being on the road, out in the country… and remind ourselves that New York is not the real world.”

Usher said that another consequence of the delocalization of news is reduced trust: only 11% of Republicans say they trust the media a great deal or a fair amount. Additionally, when places lose news, they grow more polarized, with reductions in split-ticket voting. 

Usher said that she practices a kind of “gestalt scholarship,” employing the tools of ethnography and lived experience as well as quantitative data. She dipped into this side of her research, recounting a few anecdotes which represent the “materiality” of the loss of local news.

In 2018, the LA Times moved from its Downtown home, near Skid Row, to El Segundo. The move was not without controversy. In a 2018 editorial, an anonymous author wrote that “location matters, on both a physical and symbolic level, and… moving the headquarters far away from the local power base and the most important entities and stories the Times covers… is the wrong choice.” 

The Miami Herald’s old home got demolished in 2015. Now the newsroom is near the airport, across from a cow pasture. “It’s bad for the psyche for there to be no building to exist for people to see every day,” said an editor. (A recent bit of unnerving news regarding the future of the Herald and journalism at large.)

Usher then stated that newsrooms are “places of power” that are becoming “increasingly inhospitable places for those who are non-white and who lack financial resources.” 

In June 2020, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s top editor resigned after the publication of an article with the headline “Buildings Matter, Too,” led to a walkout by dozens of staff members. At the LA Times, Latinx journalists penned an open letter drawing attention to the fact that its 13% Latinx newsroom does not reflect its nearly 50% Latinx community. In Detroit, the disparity is even worse: an 80% Black population is served by a newsroom that is only 14% Black. 

In 1968, the Kerner Commission put down a series of recommendations to improve diversity, noting that the journalistic profession was “shockingly backward” in its absence of Black journalists. The American Society of News Editors set a target date for newsrooms to be at parity with the populations they represented: 2000. They’ve since pushed the deadline to 2025. 

It’s not looking good. That’s because, according to Usher, newsrooms aren’t hiring, and “when newsrooms don’t hire, they don’t hire minority journalists.”

Usher also touched on the “death of the working class reporter.” Increasingly, the only young people who are not deterred by journalism’s instability and lack of lucrativity are those who come from copious amounts of privilege. Add this to the inability of poorer students to pursue resume-building journalism activities alongside work-study jobs, and the preference of news outlets for the oft-wealthy students of elite universities, and one can see why “journalism is becoming a profession for the elite.” 

Usher said that when “newsrooms become bastions of privilege, [that’s] bad news.” Losing journalists who come from blue-collar backgrounds means losing the ability to “empathize” with a whole set of experiences.

Usher said that as news revenue goes increasingly digital, reliance on those willing to pay is even more pronounced, with “consequences for equity in access and geographically specific news coverage.” She referenced The New York Times, whose rise “mirrors the rise in inequality” of access to news. “They know they’re leaving people behind,” Usher said. She quoted Dean Baquet, who acknowledged that 98% of Americans “were now excluded from The New York Times’ journalism and might well have to do with substandard information.”

Usher also discussed “Goldilock newspapers” — not too big, not too small, but just right for survival according to the “upside-down logic” of digital advertising. The problem is that, as Mike Wilson of the Dallas Morning News put it, “the pursuit of digital subscriptions has honed our focus on what we’re covering” — sometimes to the detriment of local readers. As a result of this phenomenon, Usher has seen reduced coverage in places considered too low-income to get advertisers. In one instance, she saw a dismissal of concerns about ad- and malware clunking up the computers of those with inferior Internet access because “those people are less likely to subscribe anyway.” 

Where does this leave us? Usher identified a few potential solutions. She reiterated calls for more inclusive newsrooms, and added her own call for higher-ed financial aid reform so that lower-income students can have a fighting chance at pursuing journalism. She discussed the need for a “post newspaper consciousness” — to acknowledge that we cannot save the newspaper, but we can identify what journalism does best and save those “special parts.” 

She left the audience with a final recommendation: journalism should “embrace the partisan media system.” Usher clarified her position: the news media like The New York Times “hides behind a veil of neutrality,” when this is only an (unconvincing) illusion. “People want to see them advocate for social justice,” she said, and she agrees. Usher doesn’t think polarization is inherently bad “if it’s polarization toward social justice and breaking down systemic inequality.”

“There’s no use assuaging people who have given up and aren’t listening. And then you have lots of people unsubscribing because the phony neutrality was irritating them,” Usher said. For organizations like the Times, the veil of neutrality is looking like a lose-lose.

She advised them to “go for those who are still listening. And just own it.”

Post by Zella Hanson

Undergraduate Researchers William He and Annie Wang Dig Deeper into Hypergraphs

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Like most things during the height of the pandemic, research that could be conducted virtually was conducted virtually. And that’s why, although juniors William He and Annie Wang have been working together on a research project since last September, they’ve never actually met in person.

He, a Math major from Houston, and Wang, a Computer Science and Math double-major from Raleigh, both work in the lab of Professor Debmalya Panigrahi, where the focus is on research in theoretical computer science, particularly graph algorithms. Wang and He did work on hypergraphs, and, after I asked them to explain what hypergraphs were in the most elementary terms (I am not a Math major), they went back and forth on how exactly to relay hypergraphs to a lay audience.

Annie Wang

Here is what they landed on: hypergraphs are essentially generalizations of normal graphs. In a normal graph, there are edges –each edge connects two points. There are also vertices – each point is a vertex. But in a hypergraph, each edge connects multiple points.

He and Wang were looking at a generalization of graph reliability – if all edges disconnect at a certain probability, what is the probability that the graph itself will break down because crucial edges are disconnecting?

William He

Their research adds to existing research on maximum flow problems, which Wikipedia tells us “entail finding a feasible flow through a flow network to obtain the maximum possible flow rate.” In a landmark paper written by T.E. Harris and F.S. Ross in 1955, the two researchers formulated the maximum flow problem using an example of the Soviet railroad and considering what cuts in the railroad would disconnect the nation entirely – and what cuts could be made with little impact to railway traffic flow. 

Maximum flow problems are a core tenet of optimization theory, used widely in disciplines from math to computer science to engineering. You may not know what mathematical optimization is, but you’ve seen it in action before: in electronic circuitry, in economics, or unsurprisingly, used by civil engineers in traffic management.

It’s expected to be incredibly difficult to exactly calculate the target value of He and Wang’s question. They landed on an approximation that they know is far from the exact calculation, but still brings them closer to understanding hypergraph connectivity more fully.

The process

So what draws them to research? For He, it’s like an itch. He describes that “sometimes I’ll be watching a movie, and then thirty minutes in I’m thinking about a possible solution to a math problem and then I can’t focus on the movie anymore.” You can’t get on with things until you scratch the itch, but the best part to him is when things finally start to make sense. For Wang, research is just plain fun. She enjoys learning about algorithms and theorems, and she loves the opportunity to work with professors who are at the forefront of their field.

After Duke, He wants to pursue a PhD, likely in theoretical computer science, while Wang is still weighing her options – whether she wants to go into academia or industry. While He came into Duke as a prospective Economics major, in quarantine especially he realized just how much he enjoyed math for the sake of itself.

Wang, similarly, thought she would want to pursue software engineering, but she’s slowly realizing that she likes “solving the problems within the field – problems that I need a PhD to solve.” The magic of research, for her, is that “you’re solving problems that no one has answers to yet.” And wherever the future takes both of them, she says that in doing research, even at the undergraduate level, “you feel like you’re pushing the boundary a tiny bit, and that’s a cool feeling.”

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

When the gut’s internal ecosystem goes awry, could an ancient if gross-sounding treatment make it right?

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Lemur researchers make a case for fecal transplants to reduce the side effects of antibiotics. Photo by David Haring, Duke Lemur Center.

Dr. Cathy Williams knew something wasn’t right. The veterinarian had felt off for weeks after her 2014 trip to Madagascar.

At first she just felt bloated and uncomfortable and wasn’t interested in eating much. But eventually she developed a fever and chills that sent her to the emergency room.

When tested, doctors found that what she had wasn’t just a stomach bug. She was suffering from an infection of Clostridium difficile, a germ that causes severe diarrhea and abdominal pain and can quickly become life-threatening if not treated promptly.

“It was horrible,” Williams said.

The condition is often triggered when antibiotics disrupt the normal balance of bacteria that inhabit the gut, allowing “bad” bacteria such as C. difficile to multiply unchecked and wreak havoc on the intestines.

To get her infection under control, Williams asked her doctors if they could try an approach she and other veterinarians had used for decades to treat lemurs with digestive problems at the Duke Lemur Center. The procedure, known as a fecal microbiota transplant, involves taking stool from a healthy donor and administering it to the patient to add back “good” microbes and reset the gut.

At the time it was considered too experimental for clinical use in human cases like Williams’. She was prescribed the standard treatment and was sent home from the hospital, though she wouldn’t feel well enough to go back to work for another month. But now new research in lemurs is confirming what Williams and others long suspected: that this ancient if gross-sounding treatment can help an off-kilter gut microbiome get back to normal.

In a recent study in the journal Animal Microbiome, a research team led by Duke professor Christine Drea, former PhD student Sally Bornbusch and colleagues looked at the gut microbiomes of 11 healthy ring-tailed lemurs over a four-month period after receiving a seven-day course of the broad-spectrum antibiotic amoxicillin.

The lemurs were split into two experimental groups. One was a wait-and-see group, with continued follow-up but no further treatment after the antibiotics. The other group was given a slurry of their own feces, collected prior to antibiotic treatment and then mixed with saline and fed back to the same animal after their course of antibiotics was over.

“It sounds crazy,” Williams said. But she has used a similar procedure since the 1990s to treat illnesses in Coquerel’s sifaka lemurs, whose infants are known to eat their mother’s poop during weaning — presumably to get the microbes they’ll need to transition to solid food.

A baby Coquerel’s sifaka tries some of her first solid foods. Photo by David Haring.

Drea, Bornbusch and team used genetic sequencing techniques to track changes in the lemurs’ gut microbiome before, during and after treatment.

As expected, even a single course of antibiotics caused the numbers of microbes in their guts to plunge compared with controls, briefly wiping out species diversity in both experimental groups before returning to baseline.

“Antibiotics had dramatic effects, even in healthy animals,” Drea said.

But in terms of which types of bacteria bounced back and when, the patterns of recovery in the two groups were different. Lemurs that received the “poop soup” treatment started to stabilize and return to their pre-antibiotic microbiome within about two weeks. In contrast, the bacterial composition in the wait-and-see group continued to fluctuate, and still hadn’t quite returned to normal even after four months of observation.

This kind of therapy isn’t new. Reports of using fecal transplants to treat people suffering from food poisoning or diarrhea date back as far as fourth century China. The evidence for its effectiveness in captive settings has Bornbusch advocating for freezing stool at Smithsonian’s National Zoo, where she is now a postdoctoral fellow.

“If we can bank feces from animals when they’re healthy, that can be a huge benefit down the road,” Bornbusch said. “It can help the animals get better, faster.”

And now if any of her lemur patients were to get sick with C. difficile like she did, Williams said, “I would absolutely go with a fecal microbiota transplant.”

“People are put off by it,” Drea said, “But the disgust for this approach might actually have been holding up a fairly cheap and useful cure.”

Ring-tailed lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina. Photo by David Haring, Duke Lemur Center

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (BCS 1749465), the Duke Lemur Center Director’s Fund, and the Duke Microbiome Center.

CITATION: “Antibiotics and Fecal Transfaunation Differentially Affect Microbiota Recovery, Associations, and Antibiotic Resistance in Lemur Guts,” Sally L. Bornbusch, Rachel L. Harris, Nicholas M. Grebe, Kimberly Roche, Kristin Dimac-Stohl, Christine M. Drea. Animal Microbiome, Oct. 1, 2021. DOI: 10.1186/s42523-021-00126-z.

By Robin Ann Smith

Experts Unpack the Space Debris Challenge Just Before an “Irresponsible” Russian Missile Launch

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Russia sucessfully tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile on Monday, creating a debris field of more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris — space junk — whizzing around the planet. The crew aboard the International Space Station was ordered into their spacesuits to help them survive if one of the shards hit their home.

The Russian test, which has been strongly condemned by US officials, has created extreme hazards for satellites. US Space Command Commander General James Dickinson stated that “Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations.”

You might be wondering, What’s the big deal?

Just last Friday on November 12th, a group of experts met with the Duke community to discuss the threats to space – an environment we often forget about – and why space junk poses a large challenge for the 21st century.

Benjamin Schmitt PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, facilitated the group conversation, which featured Hugh Lewis PhD, Professor of Astronautics and Head of the Astronautics Research Group at the University of Southampton. Schmitt stated that for the last two weeks, people around the world have paused to look up at the climate with the proceedings of COP26, but they “should also tilt their heads back a bit further” and consider the problem of space junk.

The challenge of space debris requires technical and diplomatic solutions, which are often complex. This has been effectively demonstrated by the Russian launch and resultant global reactions to the “irresponsibility” of the maneuver.

Schmitt and Lewis were joined by Brit Lundgren PhD, Laura Newburgh PhD, and W. Robert Pearson JD. Lundgren is an Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Newburgh is an Assistant Professor of Physics at Yale University, and Pearson is a retired U.S. Ambassador and current Duke University Center for International and Global Studies Fellow.

Space experts engaged in Friday’s conversation

“The space debris problem is a wicked problem,” Lewis said. And the problem is this: According to the European Space Agency, there are over 36,500 objects larger than 10cm, 1,000,000 objects over 1cm, and more than one-third of a billion objects over 1mm in size in orbit around the Earth. These numbers, though bewilderingly large, are posed to expand.

As all this junk collides with itself, there are more and more fragments and particles in space. Lewis said that unlike climate change, there is not a “tipping point.” There will not be a warning or any sudden event that pushes us into the exponential growth phase – it will just, sort of, happen.

These pieces of debris pose substantial risks to the space systems that our modern societies have come to rely on, like piloting and navigation, communication, and many forms of entertainment like television. “Without those services, all of us, the entire planet, would suffer,” Lewis said.

A visualization of the space debris currently rotating around Earth.

But this issue of space debris likely feels entirely disconnected and irrelevant for most of the world’s population. “For us down here on Earth, we are really not aware of this growing problem … and we are really not able to connect to it,” Lewis said. “Unless we make that human connection, it’s not something we would be able to address.”

The panelists all agreed that making the connections between space debris and the current functioning of our globe is a critical step to getting the public to engage with the space debris challenge.

There are also other important reasons to care about space debris. Lundgren pointed out that there has already been a global 10% increase in brightness relative to the natural, dark sky because of light-reflecting space debris. This is the kind of light pollution that you cannot escape, Lundgren stated, “You can’t just drive away like with city pollution.” For communities of people, like the Indigenous, this is also having severe impact on the cultural ways in which they use nighttime skies.

Newburgh’s scientific research uses a particular satellite frequency for data collection. This wavelength was just sold to a communication company, meaning that eventually, she will no longer be able to do her work. The frequencies used for satellites are limited, and thus an extremely valuable and expensive, monopolizable commodity. Scientists like Newburgh are gravely concerned about the protection of the future of their work and worried that we might “lose out on science.”

Because of the initiatives like Starlink, a satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX, Newburgh said that space has begun to feel like the “Wild West” with no rules or regulation. “It feels like you could just do anything.”

This was a very important tenet of the discussion: “[Space debris] is not just a technical problem we have to solve, but a social one as well.” While technical solutions are needed to constrain the exponential growth of space debris, the even bigger challenge seems to lie in answering questions like “Who gets to use the remaining capacity in lowest orbit and how do we decide?” that Lewis asked. “Lots of companies, governments, and so on want to use space,” Lewis said.

Starlink satellites are changing to night sky. The company’s satellites can be seen traveling through space.

Ambassador Pearson said that this issue could be resolved by starting with a shared interest in the space debris issue and working outwards to points of change that are important across nations. The result would not ultimately be the full wish of any singular entity. Pearson also emphasized the pertinence of action: “It’s one thing to talk about what ought to be done and to talk about what we will do.”

While Pearson says that he does not believe there is a way to avoid national competition in space, it is essential to develop rules to mitigate and govern international interactions in space. This is likely to be a long process and has been on the minds of experts for decades already. But as Pearson reminded the audience it took almost 40 years to “get the ball rolling on climate change” and 10 years for the first nuclear disarmament.

The conversation ultimately kept returning to the need to engage the public and the impact that unconstrained space debris would have on their lives. Pearson said it is important to let the public know that the access to health, technology, communications, and many facets of society people had come to expect in their lives, would be severely impacted by damage to our space infrastructure.

“Whenever you think about the environment down here that we all occupy, that we are all connected to, we have to also think about the environment in space,” Lewis said.

He ended the conversation with a quote from the science fiction movie, Terminator 2: There is no fate but what we make for ourselves. This fate is dependent on cooperation between scientists, diplomats, regulatory and technical experts, and the public around the world.

Post by Cydney Livingston, Class of 2022

Duke has 38 of the World’s Most Highly-Cited Scientists

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Peak achievement in the sciences isn’t measured by stopwatches or goals scored, it goes by citations – the number of times other scientists have referenced your findings in their own academic papers. A high number of citations is an indication that a particular work was influential in moving the field forward.

Nobel laureate Bob Lefkowitz made the list in two categories this year.

And the peak of this peak is the annual “Highly Cited Researchers” list produced each year by the folks at Clarivate, who run the Institute for Scientific Information. The names on this list are drawn from publications that rank in the top 1% by citations for field and publication year in the Web of Science™ citation index – the most-cited of the cited.

Duke has 38 names on the highly cited list this year — including Bob Lefkowitz twice because he’s just that good — and two colleagues at the Duke NUS Medical School in Singapore. In all, the 2021 list includes 6,602 researchers from more than 70 countries.

The ISI says that US scientists are a little less than 40 percent of the highly cited list this year – and dropping. Chinese researchers are gaining, having nearly doubled their presence on the roster in the last four years.

“The headline story is one of sizeable gains for Mainland China and a decline for the United States, particularly when you look at the trends over the last four years,” said a statement from David Pendlebury, Senior Citation Analyst at the Institute for Scientific Information. “(This reflects) a transformational rebalancing of scientific and scholarly contributions at the top level through the globalization of the research enterprise.”

Without further ado, let’s see who our champions are!

Biology and Biochemistry

Charles A. Gersbach

Robert J. Lefkowitz

Clinical Medicine

Pamela S. Douglas

Christopher Bull Granger

Adrian F. Hernandez

Manesh R.Patel

Eric D. Peterson

Cross-Field

Richard Becker

Antonio Bertoletti (NUS)

Yiran Chen

Stefano Curtarolo

Derek J. Hausenloy (NUS)

Ru-Rong Ji

Jie Liu

Jason W. Locasale

David B. Mitzi

Christopher B. Newgard

Ram Oren

David R. Smith

Heather M. Stapleton

Avner Vengosh

Mark R. Wiesner

Environment and Ecology

Emily S. Bernhardt

Geosciences

Drew T. Shindell

Immunology

Edward A. Miao

Microbiology

Barton F. Haynes

Neuroscience and Behavior

Quinn T. Ostrom

Pharmacology and Toxicology

Robert J. Lefkowitz

Plant and Animal Science

Xinnian Dong

Sheng Yang He

Philip N. Benfey

Psychiatry and Psychology

Avshalom Caspi

E. Jane Costello

Honalee Harrington

Renate M. Houts

Terrie E. Moffitt

Social Sciences

Michael J. Pencina

Bryce B. Reeve

John W. Williams

Post by Karl Bates

“Rainforest Radio”: Linguistic Ecology in the Western Amazon

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Radio host Rita Tunay interviews a local elder on the Kichwa-language radio program “Mushuk Ñampi” [A New Path].
Photographs from Dr. Georgia Ennis.

Starting at the pre-dawn hours of 3 or 4 AM, the Kichwa people of Napo, Ecuador, gather with family and spend time talking and listening and drinking tea, in a tradition known as Wayusa Upina.

In Kichwa, the verb “to listen” also means “to understand,” says Penn State anthropologist Georgia Ennis, who spoke at Duke last week. Wayusa Upina provides natural opportunities for children to learn from parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. Kichwa pedagogies, Ennis explains, “have a lot less to do with a traditional classroom.”

But as multigenerational households become less common and Kichwa children spend more time in schools, the tradition has become less widespread. Meanwhile, other traditions, like radio programs in Kichwa, are becoming more common, and “the radio ends up filling the space” that multigenerational conversation might otherwise fill. Through music videos, social media, live performances, books, and radio programs, the people of Napo are finding new roles for an old language.

The town of Archidona, Ecuador, located in the Western Amazon.

Ennis studies language oppression and reclamation and is broadly interested in the relationship between ecological and linguistic change. “How can we bring language and the environment together?” she asks. While her work was initially focused on language standardization, she became interested in the environmental aspects during her research. The two issues aren’t separate; they are linked in complex ways. To explain ecology in a linguistic sense, Dr. Ennis offers a definition from Einar Haugen: “Language ecology may be defined as the study of interactions between any given language and its environment… The true environment of a language is the society that uses it as one of its codes.”

Many scientists believe we are witnessing a sixth mass extinction, and extinction is occurring at unprecedented rates, but Dr. Ennis says we are losing another kind of diversity as well: the diversity of languages. Her own work focuses on Upper Napo Kichwa in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Though there are 47,000 speakers, there has been a language shift toward Spanish among younger generations. “Spanish really remains the dominant language of social life,” she says, even though the majority of the residents are Kichwa.

The concept of “language endangerment,” or the rapid loss of marginalized languages as speakers adopt dominant languages instead, is complex and not without its critics. Dr. Ennis believes languages like Kichwa are “actively oppressed,” not passively endangered.

There are eight varieties of Kichwa in the Andean highlands and the Amazon. “Unified Kichwa,” which Dr. Ennis says is based on reconstruction of Andean varieties, was adopted as an official language of Ecuador in 2008, but this standardized version fails to capture local variation. In Napo, Dr. Ennis found that “the regional linguistic varieties were understood to be inherited from your elders.” Initially, she had “a much stronger stance” against standardized language, but she now sees certain benefits to Unified Kichwa. It can, for instance, help encourage bilingual education. Still, it risks outcompeting local dialects. Many of the people she worked with in Napo are actively trying to prevent that.

The reverse of language endangerment or oppression is language revitalization or reclamation, which aims to preserve linguistic diversity by increasing the number of speakers and broadening the use of language. Media production, for instance, can help create social, political, and economic value for Upper Napo Kichwa.

Ofelia Salazar of the Association of Upper Napo Kichwa midwives weaves a shigra bag from the natural fiber pitak.

In Napo, Dr. Ennis realized that many Kichwa are interested in reclaiming more than just language. They are also working to preserve traditional environmental practices and intergenerational pedagogies. None of these issues exist in a vacuum, and recognizing their links is important. Dr. Ennis wants people to realize that “ecologies are more than just biological ecosystems.” Through the course of her work, she’s become more aware of the ties between linguistic and environmental issues. Environmental issues, she says, are present in daily life; they shape what people talk about. Conversations like these are essential. Whether in radio programs or casual discussions, political debates or household conversations before the sun has risen, the things we talk about and the stories we tell affect how we view the world and how we respond to it.

By Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

How is Universal Healthcare Like the Waterboarding Debate?

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The Duke Medical Ethics Journal (DMEJ) is an undergraduate publication started in Spring of 2020 that examines conversations around universal patient-doctor responsibility. In other words, they’re training the next generation of healthcare providers to ask big questions and make informed decisions. So, we owe them a huge thank-you in advance. 

On Sunday, October 24th, DMEJ hosted Dr. Gopal Sreenivasan to speak with current members. The event was open to the public as part of the club’s mission to promote ethical practices across all fields. Dr. Sreenivasan is a moral philosopher, but he is also a professor of medicine at Duke Medical School. His position as the “Crown Professor of Ethics at the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities & History of Medicine,” is part of an initiative to connect societal arts and sciences aspects of Duke University to the Medical School. 

Dr. Gopal Sreenivasan

“Today, I want to talk to you all about the human right to health,” he opened. 

Sreenivasan’s talk was focused on the question of how individual countries can provide healthcare or insure health.  “One division within the human right to health is the division between health and healthcare,” he clarified. “Another is the difference between a regular right and a human right.” 

As a philosopher, Sreenivasan took the issue of access to health and placed it on a universal scale. He addressed the social determinants of health (callback time!) as part of the solution, alongside more direct-but-still-indirect healthcare actions like vaccinations. His conclusion? We are ultimately moving away from the narrative that we have a right to healthcare and towards the narrative that we have a human right to health

“You have a right to health, but that does not necessarily mean you are going to be healthy. There are still factors that affect this which are under no one’s control. It doesn’t mean that if you don’t live to be 80 or 85 that your right has been violated. But you’re still entitled to a broader range of things than just health.”

To help illustrate this for my fellow visual learners, I’ve made a fun little visual aid. 

Sreenivasan laid out a verbal map to demonstrate the confusion policy makers face about addressing the wellbeing of their constituents. If you believe healthcare is a right, you believe the government has a different role to play than if you believe health is a right. You may expect less of them in terms of handling indirect factors like social determinants and vaccines. If you believe healthcare is a human right, you expect all governments to provide healthcare access universally. This is different from Sreenivasan’s preferred view: health is a human right. All people are entitled to all aspects of their health being addressed all the time in every way in every place. 

The word human in “human right” indicates universality the same way removing the care from “healthcare” does; they both broaden the scope. 

After that lovely philosophical grammatical discussion (Do colorless green ideas sleep furiously?) as our foundation, Sreenivasan moved on to a challenging analogy: waterboarding

“It does not belong to the nature of a right that everyone has to have it. But it does seem to belong to the nature of a human right that everyone has to have it. Take the human right to not be tortured, for example.”

Your moral view may differ on whether or not it is a human right not to be tortured. You may think the right should apply to all people, or no people, or only some people. But you also may think that the right should apply to only certain aspects of torture; maybe you think that specifically waterboarding doesn’t count.

(The debate around whether or not waterboarding counts as torture and whether or not it is prohibited under human rights legislation is one that has been around for a long time. Torture has been banned by multiple American presidents in multiple environments, but the language around waterboarding in particular is highly controversial. You can read more about the debate here.)

“It’s not that some people have a human right not to be tortured which protects them from waterboarding, and other people have a human right not to be tortured but it is somehow lesser and does not protect them from waterboarding. You can’t pick and choose the content based on the person for whom the right belongs.”

So, how is the waterboarding debate like universal healthcare?

For one, it’s a matter of exclusion. It’s a matter of moral philosophy. It’s a matter of definition. 

The question of whether there should be universal healthcare goes far beyond the question of whether healthcare is a right. 

How do we improve access? Who is at fault for rising drug prices? How is America’s healthcare system different than other countries? These questions must start with questions of definition. Who is our target audience? Who is included? Who is excluded? What is included? What is excluded? 

“It seems intuitive that human rights are all or nothing.” Sreenivasan explained. “Either everyone has them or no one has them. But then you must say that their content also has to be the same.”

Post by Olivia Ares, Class 2025

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The Duke Blockchain Lab: Disrupting and Redefining Finance

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The first decentralized cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, was created in 2009 by a developer named Satoshi Nakamoto which is assumed to be a pseudonym. Over the last decade, cryptocurrency has taken the world by storm, influencing the way people think about the intersection of society and economics. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum, another popular token, operate on blockchains.

Manmit Singh, a senior studying electrical and computer engineering, was introduced to blockchain his freshman year at Duke after meeting Joey Santoro ‘19, a senior studying computer science at the time.

Singh quickly found that he was not only interested in the promise of blockchain but skilled at building blockchain applications as well. As a result, he joined the Duke blockchain lab, a club on campus that, at the time, had no more than fifteen students. Singh, who is now president of the Duke Blockchain Lab, explained that there are now over 100 members in the club working on different projects related to blockchain. 

“Blockchain is a computer network with a built-in immutable ledge.”

Manmit SIngh

Essentially, computers process information, the internet allows us to communicate information and blockchain is the next step in the evolution of the digital era. It not only allows computers to communicate value but to transfer it as well in a completely transparent way because every transaction is tracked and, a record of that transaction is added to every participant’s ledger which is visible to others.

The concept and application of blockchain is not intuitive to everybody. Not only do people have difficulty understanding it, but they do not even know where to begin asking questions. 

For Singh, a key element to the club’s success was recruiting new members. The crypto space experienced a crash in 2017 resulting in a lot of skepticism around an already novel idea, decentralized currency. As a result, it was crucial to educate others on the potential of decentralized finance (DeFi), cryptocurrency, and, of course, blockchain. When recruiting, Singh wanted to bring in both tech and business-focused students so that they could not only work on building blockchain applications but conduct research on business models and how to generate value within decentralized finance as well.

Members of the Duke Blockchain Lab at a
weekly meeting learning about Stablecoins,
one type of token in cryptocurrency

Currently, members are working on a variety of projects including looking at consensus algorithms or how the blockchain makes decisions given that it is decentralized so inherently no one is in control. However, their most ambitious venture is the development of their Crypto Fund where people can invest money.

They are also looking to develop a Duke-inspired marketplace with talented Duke artists to sell non-fungible-tokens or NFTs. If unfamiliar, Abby Shlesinger, a senior studying Art History, created a blog to educate people on what NFTs are. 

One of the first projects Singh led involved developing a “smart contract” for cryptocurrency-based energy trading on the Ethereum Virtual Machine, a computation engine that acts like a decentralized computer that can hold millions of executable projects. Smart contracts are programs stored on a blockchain that run when predetermined conditions are met.

Additionally, Singh and other members of the Duke Blockchain Lab are working on tokenomic research with Dr. Harvey, a Duke professor who recently published a book alongside Santoro titled “DeFi and the Future of Finance” which you can find here. 

“Every blockchain is a complete economy that exists on a different plane.” 

Within these blockchain economies are various different types of tokens that vary in function and value. Tokenomics explores how these economies work and can be used to generate value. When asked to compare tokenomic concepts to ones in traditional finance, Singh explained that payment tokens are like dollars, asset tokens are like bonds and security tokens are like stocks. Currently, several companies are working on creating competitive blockchains that will be both cheaper and faster allowing creating an avenue for blockchain to continue accelerating into the mainstream. 

Meanwhile, Santoro, who introduced Singh to blockchain, graduated from Duke in 2019 and went on to form The Fei Protocol, a stable coin that unlike bitcoin does not change in value. His protocol raised one billion dollars within several weeks and while it had some initial challenges, it is now set to launch V2, a second version, soon. 

Singh plans to continue working on blockchain applications after graduating this spring and hopes to combine it with his passion for entrepreneurship.

“I am enthused by the applications of artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the internet of things in disrupting the world as we know it.”

Manmit Singh
By: Anna Gotskind

250,000-Year-Old Child Adds to the Mystery of Our Human Origins

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Based on the small size of Leti’s skull and on the combination of baby teeth and unerupted adult teeth, researchers estimate that the Homo naledi child would have been 4-6 years old.

Look at the palm of your hand and spread your fingers wide. Now imagine squeezing your body through a gap narrower than the distance between the tip of your thumb and the tip your pinkie finger. Let’s make this a bit worse: the gap is in complete darkness, its walls are rough stone, and all you have is a tiny headlamp. Ok, now that you are there, all you have to do is carefully find and recover dime-sized fragments of an invaluable treasure.

That’s how researchers recovered the first Homo naledi child’s skull ever to be found.

The finding was revealed this week in two papers published in the journal PaleoAnthropology by an international team of 21 researchers.

Homo naledi are possibly our most mysterious long-lost cousins. They are an ancient human relative that lived in what is now South Africa, approximately 350 to 250 thousand years ago. They were first discovered in the Rising Star Cave system in 2013, in a research expedition led by Lee Berger, Professor and chair of Palaeo-Anthropology and Director of the Centre for Exploration of the Deep Human Journey at the University of Witwatersand.

The research team, which includes Steven Churchill, professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke, named the child Leti (pronounced Let-e), after the Setswana word “letimela” meaning “the lost one”.

Leti was found in one of the previously unexplored narrow fissures that radiate from Rising Star’s known chambers. His resting site was a 15 cm wide and 80 cm long gap where only the smallest (and bravest) of explorers could fit.

Explorer Becca Peixoto wedges herself between cave rock walls to get to Leti’s skull.

Marina Elliot, lead author of the first paper and one of the explorers to first discover Homo naledi, said in a press conference that excavating Leti’s remains required explorers to wedge themselves practically upside down between two rock walls.

Finding yet another fossil in a prolific site may not seem groundbreaking, but finding a child’s skull is a major achievement. First of all, children’s bones are thin and fragile, and rarely withstand the test of time.

Second, finding a child’s skull gives researchers a precious glimpse into the development of Homo naledi.

“A child’s skull allows us to study how Homo naledi grew and developed, and how their growth rate and schedule compares to other hominid species, and to our own,” Churchill said.

In addition to skull fragments, researchers also recovered two worn baby teeth and four unworn adult teeth that were yet to erupt. These findings show that Leti would have been between four and six years old at the time of her or his death.

Based on similarities between the soil of the fissure where Leti was found and the better-known areas of the cave, Tebogo Makhubela, senior lecturer of Geology at the University of Johannesburg and author of the papers, estimated that Leti has been hidden in Rising Star for over 250,000years.

The discovery of Leti’s skull also deepens the mystery of how Homo naledi’s remains ended up in such a deep, dark, and treacherous cave.

Berger’s team had previously hypothesized that the first 15 Homo naledi individuals found in Rising Star had been disposed there by their own species, as a burial. This hypothesis created an uproar: could a small-brained hominin from over 300,000years ago bury their dead, just like we do?

Leti’s skull was found on a small shelf at the back of the cave’s fissure. No other bones were found, suggesting that Leti’s head may have been deliberately placed there. Leti, as well as all other Homo naledi fossils ever found, showed no evidence of being dragged by predators, carried by water, or tumbled around in any other way.

“Those were social individuals. Seeing one of their own being picked apart by animals could have been very distressing,” Churchill said. “Purposeful disposal of their bodies still seems like the most likely explanation.”

Berger is undeterred by nay-sayers. “This is science,” Berger said at a press conference. “We will continue testing and challenging our hypotheses with every piece of data that we get.”

The researchers hope that other teams around the world will study Leti and other Homo naledi fossils. To that end, Leti’s skull was CT-scanned, and its scans can be downloaded from Morphosource, an open access repository of museum specimens’ 3D scans hosted at Duke University.

Leti will probably not be the last treasure to come out of Rising Star’s spider web of narrow passages.

“I can’t wait to go back to South Africa and see what else is waiting for us in that cave,” said Juliet Brophy, Professor of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University and lead author of the paper describing Leti’s skull.

“This finding makes us remember that exploration is always worth doing,” said Elliot, who is a researcher at Simon Fraser University and Witwatersand University. “There is a lot still out there to be found”.

The Rising Star cave system is known for being extremely dangerous to explore.

Elliot et al. was funded by the National Geographic Society, the Lyda Hill Foundation, the South African National Research Foundation, and the Gauteng Provincial Government, for funding the discovery, recovery and ongoing analyses of the material. Additional support was provided by ARC (DP140104282).

Brophy et al. was funded by the National Geographic Society, the Lyda Hill Foundation, the South African National Research Foundation, the South African Centre for Excellence in Palaeosciences, The University of the Witwatersrand, the Vilas Trust, the Fulbright Scholar Program, Louisiana State University, North Carolina State University, the Texas A&M University College of Liberal Arts Seed Grant program and the Texas A&M College of Liberal Arts Cornerstone Faculty Fellowship.

Citations:

“Expanded Explorations of the Dinaledi Subsystem, Rising Star Cave System, South Africa.” Marina C. Elliot,Tebogo V. Makhubela, Juliet K. Brophy, Steven E. Churchill, Becca Peixoto, Elen M. Feuerriegel, Hannah Morris, Rick Hunter, Steven Tucker, Dirk Van Rooyen, Maropeng Ramalepa, Mathabela Tsikoane,Ashley Kruger, Carl Spander, Jan Kramers, Eric Roberts, Paul H.G.M. Dirks,John Hawks,Lee R. Berger. PaleoAnthropology, November 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.48738/2021.iss1.68.

“Immature Hominin Craniodental Remains From a New Localityin the Rising Star Cave System, South Africa.” Juliet K. Brophy, Marina C. Elliot, Darryl J. De Ruiter, Debra R. Bolter, Steven E. Churchill, Christopher S. Walker, John Hawks, Lee Berger. PaleoAnthropology, November 2021, DOI: https://doi.org/10.48738/2021.iss1.64.

By Marie-Claire Chelini
By Marie-Claire Chelini

School Segregation & Culture War: Color of Education 2021

Mary Hassdyk

Perhaps you’ve heard of the 1619 Project. A Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalism project which sought to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” the project has been controversial and is thought to have sparked the current debate over critical race theory in the classroom.

Its creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, spoke at the Color of Education virtual summit on October 26. She discussed her journalistic research on systemic racial inequities in the education system, as well as the 1619 Project and the struggle over teaching race in the classroom.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Hannah-Jones defined the public school as an “intimate place” where young members of society come together to “exchange ideas and culture, meeting across class and race.” The public school serves to create community, which, she stressed, is necessary for a healthy democracy. “A sense of community prevents polarization,” she said. “I know that a person who’s different from me still wants, fundamentally, the same things.” That gives us more of an opportunity to solve political problems without hostility. 

Instead, she often sees “segregated” low-income mostly-Black schools and “integrated” mostly-white schools, separated by a disturbing chasm of resources and opportunity. (She’s written about this in several Times pieces.) She remarked that “this bifurcation doesn’t serve our democracy and it doesn’t serve humanity.”

But that’s been a problem since before Brown v. Board of Education. What’s changed in the last few years, according to Hannah-Jones, is that in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, there is now a “culture war” being waged over critical race theory. 

Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines the intersection of race with law and public policy. The theory is controversial: many fear the fundamental critique of the US legal and economic system that the theory ultimately implies. (In 2020, whereas white conservatives and more moderate liberals tended to blame fatal incidents of police brutality on “a few bad apples,” the viewpoint consistent with critical race theory is that “the problem is the barrel and the systems that produce it.”)

Laws banning the teaching of critical race theory have already been passed or are in the works in several states, including here in North Carolina, where Governor Roy Cooper recently vetoed a bill which sought to regulate the teaching of several race-related concepts, including whether “a meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist.”

There’s also historical revisionism, known pejoratively as ‘revisionist history’: the reinterpretation of orthodox views surrounding historical events, or, according to fellow Times contributor and historian Timothy Snyder, “the parts of history that challenge leaders’ sense of righteousness or make their supporters uncomfortable.” (Snyder says that in the US, “the ‘revisionists’ are people who write about race.”) 

Critical race theory ultimately requires some revisionism — to critically examine the intersection of race with the laws and policy of the current moment, we must critically examine how we got here, and that means taking another look at the US’ legal history, war history, even its history of infrastructure. Critical race theory is usually taught in college humanities classes. (Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in the 1980s, and her work is decidedly college level — I’ve read her here at Duke, but certainly not before.) But because critical race theory and revisionism are linked, it’s come to pass that any K-12 effort to teach about how racism has informed US history now gets labeled as “critical race theory” by adversaries of these efforts. 

Critical race theory has become a buzzword — and in many circles, it’s a bad word. These days, if a parent thinks you’re teaching critical race theory, you might soon find yourself without a job. (The summit required a passcode and was not recorded for fear that educators participating might be “outed as believers” in critical race theory and subsequently maligned.)

Along with educators in the Zoom comments, Hannah-Jones discussed this problem: teachers are getting accused of teaching “critical race theory”; the term is being used as a weapon and to imply wrongdoing; and it seems that parents, legislators, and even some educators don’t know what it actually means. 

Hannah-Jones asserted that this is “how propaganda works.” The term “critical race theory” is being used to produce fear and automatic condemnation, which distracts from the content of the theory and shuts down further (more rational) conversation. Hannah-Jones gave some advice to educators: “When a parent says, ‘I do not want my child to learn critical race theory,’ Ask them what they think that it is. They don’t know. And then you get to say, ‘Well, no, that’s history. Well, no, that’s anti-slavery.’ You get the point.”

Hannah-Jones explained that “as educators, you have to have these conversations with people.” Parents don’t necessarily know what their children are learning in school — and that can be a source of anxiety. So when “bad-faith actors are fear mongering, saying ‘Don’t you know what terrible things your kids are learning?’” it’s all too easy for parents to become distraught and distrust their child’s teacher.

Moving to discussing other issues in education, Hannah-Jones emphasized that schools are generationally deprived of resources, which is a problem that “can’t be fixed overnight.” She’s seen parents trying to advocate for their children and failing because they lack proximity to social, political, or legal power. “Maybe they can’t come to PTA because they’re a single mother, or they work at Popeyes — they get dismissed,” she said. “There’s no meeting with the superintendent. They can’t call the media in.” And when power dictates one’s ability to make change, the generational deprivation of resources can only continue.

Jayden Grant, a senior at Falls Lake Academy, asked Hannah-Jones how to ensure that these issues are addressed on the level of charter and private schools, which aren’t governed by the same policies. 

Hannah-Jones replied that she is fundamentally opposed to charter and private schools, viewing them as “undemocratic by design.” As such, “holding them accountable” is only possible through public advocacy, namely through the media. Students have the strongest voice, she told Jayden. They’re the reason these schools exist in the first place; it’s up to them to challenge policies or actions they see as unfair and make the public aware. 

On that note, Hannah-Jones brought the conversation back to the question of which version of our collective past will be taught in the K-12 classroom. Hannah-Jones said that based on the feedback she’s gotten and conversations she’s had, the 1619 project has inspired kids. It’s made them excited about history and learning in general. She denounced the neoliberal “privatization and commodification of education,” stating that often, parents wrongly view themselves as consumers. “We need to center kids in these discussions,” she said.

Hannah-Jones wrapped up the discussion with a call to action. She told the audience to “get angry” that authors like Ruby Bridges and Toni Morrison are being blacklisted, because “that is the same kind of thinking that’s led to the inequality we see now.” She claimed that “people wouldn’t be freaking out about the 1619 Project if it wasn’t having an effect,” but the Project is making waves, because “those who control the stories about who we are control the culture.” And the culture Hannah-Jones wants to see is one which sees the “least of us as just as deserving as anyone else.”

Professor Emeritus at UNC Harry Amana had the last word, saying that one cannot be an educator without being an optimist. That’s because, as an educator, you believe that “if people knew better, they would do better.” 

Maybe one day, we all will.

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