Research Blog

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

The COVID-19 ‘Endgame’ Depends on Where You Live

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In February of 2020, no one could have fathomed that the very next month would usher in the COVID-19 pandemic – an era of global history that has (to date) resulted in 5 million deaths, 240 million cases, trillions of dollars lost, and the worsening of every inequality imaginable.

And while scientists and governments have worked together to make incredible advances in vaccine technology, access, and distribution, it goes without saying that there is more work to be done to finally put the pieces of an exhausted global society back together. On Tuesday, October 12th, the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI) brought together three leaders in global health to discuss what those next steps should be.

The panel discussion, which was moderated by Dr. Krishna Udayakumar of the DGHI, was titled “The COVID-19 Endgame: Where are we headed, and when will we get there?” The panelists were Dr. Ann Lindstrand, who is the World Health Organization’s unit head for the Essential Program on Immunization; Dr. Ayoade Alakija, who is the co-chair of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance and founder of the Emergency Coordination Center in Nigeria; and Alberto Valenzuela, who is the Executive Director of the Pan American and Parapan American Games Legacy Project.

Dr. Ayoade Alakija
Dr. Ann Linstrand
Alberto Valenzuela

Dr. Lindstrand began by setting the stage and highlighting what are undoubted successes on a global level. 6.5 billion doses of the vaccine have been administered around the world, and the vaccines have impressive effectiveness given the speed with which they were developed. Yet undergirding all of this is the elephant in the room that, sitting in a 1st-world country, we don’t think about: high-income countries have administered 32 times more doses per inhabitant compared to low-income countries.

Graph from Dr. Ann Lindstrand

This vaccine inequity has been exacerbated by already weak health security systems, vaccine nationalism, and lackluster political commitment. And while the WHO is slated to enormously ramp up supplies of vaccines in Q4 of 2021 and Q1 of 2022, it doesn’t mitigate the damage to the socioeconomic welfare of people that COVID-19 has already had. Dr. Lindstrand outlines the three waves of socioeconomic impact we will see, but expressed concern that “we’re already beginning to see the first wave pan out.” 

Diagram from Dr. Ann Lindstrand

Dr. Alakija took this discussion a step further, asserting that COVID-19 is poised to become the disease of low-income countries. “If you’re living in the US or EU,” she remarked, “You’re heading into the ‘Roaring 20s’. If you live in the Global South, COVID-19 is going to become your future.”

To this point, Dr. Alakija emphasized that the only reason this is the status quo is because in her eyes, the world failed to do what was right when it should have. In her home country of Nigeria, she highlighted that out of a population of 210 million people, 5.1 million people have received the vaccine – and of those 5.1 million, just 2 million — one percent — have been double-vaccinated. “It really is a case of keeping those down further down, while giving booster doses to those that have already been vaccinated,” she said. “We don’t have diagnostic data, so people are slipping underwater and the world has no idea.”

It’s worth noting that Nigeria houses some of the megacities of the world, not just in the African continent. So according to Dr. Alakija, “we don’t solve this with a medical lens, we solve this with a whole-of-society lens.” We must, she argued, because in an interconnected world, no one exists in isolation.

Alberto Valenzuela’s work is a great example of this. In 2019, his team led organizing efforts for the Pan American Games in Lima, relying on extensive partnerships between public organizations and corporations. In 2020, though, as the world shifted, the government called on the team to transition into something much different – COVID-19 relief efforts in the country.

The results are staggering. In just 5 weeks, the Pan American and Parapan American Games Legacy Project built 10 hospitals in 5 regions of the country. The implementation of 31 vaccination centers throughout the country resulted in a tripling of the number of people vaccinated per day in Lima. To him, this work “proves what’s possible when private and public sectors merge.” In other words, remarkable things happen when all of society tackles a societal issue.

Slide from Alberto Valenzuela

So where do we go from here? Perhaps the biggest thing that stood out was the need to empower low-income countries to make decisions that are best for them. In Dr. Alakija’s words, “we need to lose the charity model in favor of a partnership model.” Dr. Lindstrand pointed out that there’s a deep know-how in the Global South of how to roll out mass-vaccination efforts – but only when we “lay down our organizational hats” can we move to what Dr. Lindstrand termed “more coordination and less confusion.” Valenzuela emphasized the need to integrate many sectors, not just healthcare, to mobilize the COVID-19 response in countries. But above all, Dr. Alakija said, “there will be no endgame until we have equity, inclusion, and health justice.” 

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

Leadership As ‘Groundskeeping,’ Not ‘Gatekeeping,’ and Other “Lessons From Plants”

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Dr. Beronda Montgomery, author of Lessons from Plants, recently spoke at Duke University. (Photos: Marie Claire Chelini, Biology Dept.)

Plants do not passively exist, leaving their survival to the whims of fate; they notice their environments and respond accordingly, says Dr. Beronda Montgomery, a professor, writer, science communicator, and researcher from Michigan State University who studies plants and what we can learn from them.

She visited Duke last week to talk about her recently published book, Lessons from Plants, and the inspiration behind it.

Plants perceive and respond to their surroundings in myriad ways, from turning toward a light source to reacting to differences in temperature, humidity, and nutrient availability. Even the same stimulus can cause different reactions in different situations, said Montgomery, whose research involves photosynthetic organisms, especially Arabidopsis plants and cyanobacteria. She is broadly interested in how organisms respond to and are affected by their environments.

For example, light can serve as either a “go signal” or a “stop signal,” depending how much of it is available. In low light conditions, plants invest more energy in stem elongation as they seek light. When they have sufficient light, on the other hand, plants undergo “de-etiolation,” creating shorter stems and better developed leaves.

Montgomery doesn’t just learn about plants; she learns from them as well. And in some cases, she says, plants might make better teachers than humans.

Montgomery spoke in the Penn Pavilion at Duke.

One area Montgomery has written about extensively, both in Lessons from Plants and elsewhere, is equity. As she points out, “Equal aptitude can result in different outcomes depending on environment.” According to Montgomery, “Humans, by and large, have an expectation of growth for plants,” so when something goes wrong, we look to external factors. We blame the caretaker, not personal defects in the plant. With humans, on the other hand, “We recruit people… who have demonstrated success elsewhere,” fueling a vicious cycle that can exacerbate inequities and limit opportunities. Montgomery talks about “the need to move from leadership as gatekeeping to groundskeeping.”

When students or employees struggle, she believes we should scrutinize mentors and caregivers instead of automatically attributing failure to personal defects. After all, “We would never say… ‘let me teach you to have turgid leaves’ to a plant” or tell it to simply try harder. We don’t eliminate houseplants that aren’t thriving. We ask ourselves what they need—whether it’s light, fertilizer, or water—and make changes accordingly.

“What would happen,” Montgomery asks, “if we saw things like equity as essential to our existence?” She stresses that questions like these can’t remain hypothetical. She points to a quote in Breathe, a book by Imani Perry, that captures the importance of applying what we learn: “Awareness is not a virtue in and of itself, not without a moral imperative.”

Nevertheless, Montgomery believes that “We have to live in the system we have while we transform it.” Sometimes, just as managed fires can make forests healthier and safer, there is a need for “intentional disruption” in the human world. “We seem to want change without change,” when we should instead be embracing the process of change as well as the result. “Change doesn’t mean that what happened in the past was all evil. It just means that we have to keep moving.” Moving forward is something plants do well. Season by season, year by year, they keep growing. Montgomery speaks of the tulips that helped bring her peace during a period of personal and collective grief. In spite of everything, the tulips she had planted in the fall came up in the springtime, ready for warmer weather.

Plants don’t just respond to change; they prepare for it. In the fall, when deciduous trees lose their leaves, they are “actively prepar[ing] for rest,” something Montgomery thinks we could all learn from.

Hope, according to Montgomery, means that “some things have to die, and some live,” and that “despite what’s going on around you, you have to find the power and strength to go on.”

“I aspire to hope,” she says.

Montgomery also did a book signing for Lessons from Plants which was published in April of this year.

Montgomery says her guiding life principle is reciprocity. It seems fitting, then, that she has taught her son to appreciate plants from an early age, just as her mother did for her. When Montgomery’s son was nine months old, she planted a tree in his honor with the idea that he would be its steward. Sometimes, her son was taller than the tree. Other times, it was the other way around. When Montgomery’s son was seven, the tree became ill, but they treated it successfully, prompting conversations about sickness and recovery and what it means to care for something. Throughout his childhood, her son’s tree remained a valuable conversation starter. It still is.

“He’s a second-year student in college, and he still asks about his tree.”

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

The Black Wealth Gap in Modern Day America

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“White Americans have been provided with up escalators they can ride to reach their goals without hurdles. Meanwhile, Black Americans have been forced onto down escalators which they must run-up to reach their destination.”

The Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University recently released a striking report on Black wealth in America, entitled “Still Running Up the Down Escalator: How Narratives Shape our Understanding of Racial Wealth Inequality,” This 36-page report, written by Natasha Hicks, Fenaba Addo, Anne Prince, and William Darity examines the stark inequalities in the economic situation of Black Americans.

The cover page of the 36-page, in-depth report, published earlier this fall.

“Despite a decade of philanthropic investment and renewed attention from progressive elected officials, policymakers, and advocates, we have yet to make discernible progress in ensuring Black families have the power and freedom wealth bestows,” the report says (page 1).

“The typical Black household’s wealth (in 2019) was $24,100; for White households, it was $188,200. This translates into the typical Black household holding about 12 cents for every dollar of wealth held by the typical White family– a disparity that has remained largely unchanged since 1989 (Kent and Ricketts, 2020).” ( page 6)

Black families are disproportionately shut out of access to opportunities that would improve generational wealth, such as home loans, business loans/ownership, and financial assets. Because of the long history of these inequalities, Black wealth in America has improved little in the last 10 years.

The report continues by analyzing how Covid-19, the worst Pandemic in US History, has widened the wealth gap in America.

“Racial wealth inequality remains a persistent defining American issue, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate toll on the physical and financial health of Black people,” the report says. “The COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding economic crisis have only exacerbated what was already a collective failing by policymakers and elected officials, who continue to invest in solutions focused on individual behavior instead of systems change.”

Covid-19 placed over 114 million people into unemployment over the course of the pandemic, with an overrepresentation of Black Americans in these figures. The figures below were published in the report to highlight the number of liquid assets and wealth available to white families versus black families in 2019, just one year before the pandemic.

This figure taken from the report shows the median liquid assets by race and income. ( figure 1, page 8)
This figure taken from the report shows the median wealth accumulated by race and wealth quintiles. (figure 2, page 8)

As illustrated by these figures, the average White family in America maintains a leg up financially through both income and assets, which is why when the pandemic hit, black Americans were the ones disproportionately affected. Without access to high wealth modules or liquid assets to lean on, the economic wealth gap in America grew bigger.

The next part of the report talked about how false narratives in America regarding economic inequality is leading to unsuccessful aims of correction. In America, it’s a common theme to assume the problems faced by Black Americans are a cultural or personal issue, instead of a systemic one.

“Harmful narratives that characterize Black Americans as unintelligent, lazy, and criminal reinforce the notion that racial wealth disparities between Black and White households arise from differences in culture, values, skills, and behavior.” (page 10) Themes of anti-Blackness and personal responsibility, or a bootstrap mentality, were key systemic factors noted in the report. These factors impacted almost every aspect of Black America, including education, homeownership, entrepreneurship, family structure, and income and employment.

The report concludes by bringing up tangible solutions for these structural problems.

“The past year of crises is exposing the fact that we created systems, rules, and policies that actively and intentionally harm Black people. In order to truly address racial wealth inequality and the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, policymakers and funders must move away from solutions focused on behavioral changes and individual choices. Rather, they must take bold actions (backed by large scale financial investments) to shift dominant narratives and reimagine economic structures that support, uplift and protect Black people.” (page 23)

The authors make four broad proposals: shift harmful narratives, eliminate the racial wealth gap, dismantle extractive policies, and design programs to seed intergenerational wealth.

Economic disparities in America are a systemic issue, not a cultural or personal one. This report examines the interplay between this issue and the current pandemic, maintaining that the only way to create tangible change is through systemic solutions.

“America offers a false promise of equal opportunity and individual agency. For Black Americans, making all the right choices does not equal all the right outcomes. Just as wealth-building for White people in America was by design and government action, we need intentional and structural wealth-building strategies for Black Americans with investments compared to those given to White Americans. This requires a paradigm shift to truly tackle racial wealth inequality.” (page 36)

Written by Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

Dr. Laura Richman is Defining Health by its Social Determinates

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In 2010, the Affordable Care Act sparked a nationwide debate on the extent of responsibility the American government has over our healthcare. But Dr. Laura Richman has been asking that question since long before that. 

Richman is a health psychologist. “I examine psychosocial factors that have an impact on health behaviors and health outcomes,” she explains, sitting across from me at the Law School café. (Neither of us were wearing a cardigan. It was rather hot outside). 

Laura Richman Ph.D. is an associate professor in population health sciences. (image: Scholars@Duke)

Richman is an associate professor at Duke in the Population Health Sciences, an associate of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society, and, coincidentally, my professor in the Science & the Public FOCUS cluster. She co-teaches the course Science, Law, and Policy with Dr. Yousef Zafar, in which we examine the social determinants of health through the lens of cancer screening, diagnosis, and treatment.

After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1997 with a Ph.D. in social psychology, Richman worked at a sort of think-tank for health professionals collaborating on social issues. This inspired her to pursue health research through the lens of social determinants.

“There was a lot of work on substance use, on mental health, on behavioral disorders. That certainly contributed to my continued interest in factors that have an influence on these [health] outcomes,” she said. 

Continuing in this work, she became a research associate at the School of Public Health at Harvard University; Richman described her time at Harvard as “exciting,” which is not a word used by many to describe empirical research environments. “Certainly there’s that really robust relationship between low income, low education, low job status and poor health outcomes, but a lot of those pathways— like the ones we talk about in class, Olivia— had not been studied.” 

She’s referring to the public health concept of ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ solutions. (The river parable goes as follows: when you observe a trend in people drowning in a certain river, you are presented with different ways of solving the problem. You can start pulling people out of the river and saving them one at a time, which is called a “downstream” solution in public health. You can also prevent people from falling into the river, which is called an “upstream” solution.)

(courtesy of SaludAmerica!)

Richman’s professional research explores another crucial social determinant of health we discussed in class: perceived versus actual discrimination. She asked whether marginalization — objectively or subjectively — can affect functioning, “both psychologically and cognitively. Like, how does it affect their thought processes? Their decision-making? Then, how does that affect their health?” You can read her study here

One thing I noted immediately was Richman’s affinity for creative research design. In a lab she headed at Duke, she conducted one experiment with a student that tested the aforementioned effect of marginalization on health decisions. They provided subjects with a choice between unhealthy and healthy snack options after watching a video of, reading a passage about, or imagining members of their community experience discrimination.

In one study we read for Science, Law, and Policy, the stress effect of discrimination towards Arabic-named individuals after 9/11 was measured through the birth outcomes of Arabic-named mothers pregnant during that time. When I asked her about this, she said, “Particularly working with students, I think that they just bring so much energy and creativity to the research. Surveys serve their purpose — I think they’re really important, but I think there are just lots of opportunities to do more with research designs and research questions. I like trying to approach things from a different angle.” 

Richman is also working on a book. She is studying relational health — health as determined by the opioid epidemic, the obesity crisis, and social isolation associated with aging. She hopes her project will be used in classrooms (and by the interested layman), and that the value of social determinants of health is reflected in increased funding dollars, more people interested in health disparities, more focus in medical education on the screening and referral system, and stimulating dialogue among people in positions of power on a policy level.

Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

The Major Player in Global Infrastructure Investment – And What That Means for the Climate

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Perhaps no singular economy in the world has grown and expanded as rapidly as China’s. “Made in China” labels prove just how far of a reach China has globally – from clothes to technology to automotive parts. But there’s another facet of this expansion that is poised to become more and more important.

Developing countries across the world face infrastructure challenges that hinder their growth and prosperity, and these challenges have only been exacerbated by COVID-19. China, along with other key economic players, is sensing this sore lack, and competing to invest in global infrastructure projects. There are many questions to be asked about the ethics and impact of global infrastructure investment, but one thought in particular rises to the top: what does infrastructure investment mean for the climate?

To prod at this question, the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies hosted a conversation with Dr. Jackson Ewing on September 29 entitled “The Great Infrastructure Game: Why Asia, Europe, and America are Competing to Build in the Developing World and What It Means for the Global Climate”. Ewing, who holds a joint appointment as a senior fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute of Environmental Policy as well as adjunct associate professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy, unpacked the “game” by taking a specific deep dive into China’s investment sources, standards, and approaches.

Dr. Jackson Ewing

A couple of key things stood out from the conversation. The first is that to understand China’s infrastructure investment impact, it’s important to understand the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is arguably the most important “umbrella mechanism” for China’s infrastructure investment, associated with projects such as ports, railways, airports, and power plants. Launched in 2013, its name comes from the concept of the Silk Road, an ancient network of trade routes connecting China to the Mediterranean, that was established during the Han Dynasty 2,000 years ago. This modern-day Silk Road connects Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks. The initiative defines its five major priorities to be “policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and connecting people.”

Mapping the Belt-and-Road Initiative

The BRI has led to what Ewing called “meteoric investment growth.” What does that investment look like? Ewing made note of several key characteristics. One is that Chinese lending has shifted significantly, from lending to sovereign banks to lending to companies and organizations in destination countries. This type of investment makes up nearly 70% of China’s portfolio. Another characteristic of this investment is that a chunk of the BRI project portfolio – 35%, to be exact – has encountered massive criticism on the grounds of corruption and environmental issues.

Slide from the presentation by Dr. Ewing

Previously, energy investment along the BRI looked mostly like coal. Between 2007 and 2015, China led all nations in financing nearly 25 billion dollars of outbound coal creation, with India, Indonesia, Mongolia, Turkey, and Vietnam being its biggest recipients.

Slide from the presentation by Dr. Ewing

Ewing noted that while China arguably does have a coal overcapacity problem, “it still compares significantly in outbound renewables.” The diagram below gives a breakdown of BRI energy investments – while the orange chunk of coal is still the biggest chunk of investment, the green renewable chunks don’t lag far behind. This increased interest in the renewable space is largely fueled by capacity problems, as well as domestic and environmental challenges. There has been a plateauing of coal consumption in the country – but is that something to get excited about?

 There have been cross-ministerial efforts to promote a Green BRI in response to criticism, but as Ewing put it, “They’ve led to debatably meaningful practices to undergird existing initiatives.” While coal investment has slowed down as hydro investment has picked up the pace, China’s annual energy finance from policy banks has taken a hit and is slowing down. So what can we conclude?

Slide from the presentation by Dr. Ewing
Slide from the presentation by Dr. Ewing

Well, it’s safe to conclude two things. The first is that this Chinese shift away from coal does matter – but whether this will lead to a change in Chinese investment philosophy that will mark the next decade remains to be seen. The second thing to conclude is that as China dips more into the renewable space, other countries will follow. In fact, the U.S and EU have been prioritizing renewable investments for a while. This competition may very well mean that we see a growing number of renewable projects, which is undoubtedly good news for the climate.

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

New Blogger Shariar Vaez-Ghaemi: Arts and Artificial Intelligence

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Hi! My name is Shariar. My friends usually pronounce that as Shaw-Ree-Awr, and my parents pronounce it as a Share-Ee-Awr, but feel free to mentally process my name as “Sher-Rye-Eer,” “Shor-yor-ior-ior-ior-ior,” or whatever phonetic concoction your heart desires. I always tell people that there’s no right way to interpret language, especially if you’re an AI (which you might be).

Speaking of AI, I’m excited to study statistics and mathematics at Duke! This dream was born out of my high school research internship with New York Times bestselling author Jonah Berger, through which I immersed myself in the applications of machine learning to the social sciences. Since Dr. Berger and I completed our ML-guided study of the social psychology of communicative language, I’ve injected statistical learning techniques into my investigations of political science, finance, and even fantasy football.

Unwinding in the orchestra room after a performance

When I’m not cramped behind a Jupyter Notebook or re-reading a particularly long research abstract for the fourth time, I’m often pursuing a completely different interest: the creative arts. I’m an orchestral clarinetist and quasi-jazz pianist by training, but my proudest artistic endeavours have involved cinema. During high school, I wrote and directed three short films, including a post-apocalyptic dystopian comedy and a silent rendition of the epic poem “Epopeya de la Gitana.”

I often get asked whether there’s any bridge between machine learning and the creative arts*, to which the answer is yes! In fact, as part of my entry project for Duke-based developer team Apollo Endeavours, I created a statistical language model that writes original poetry. Wandering
Mind, as I call the system, is just one example of the many ways that artificial intelligence can do what we once considered exclusively-human tasks. The program isn’t quite as talented as Frost or Dickinson, but it’s much better at writing poetry than I am.

In a movie production (I’m the one wearing a Totoro onesie)

I look forward to presenting invigorating research topics to blog readers for the next year or more. Though machine learning is my scientific expertise, my investigations could transcend all boundaries of discipline, so you may see me passionately explaining biology experiments, environmental studies, or even macroeconomic forecasts. Go Blue Devils!

(* In truth, I almost never get asked this question by real people unless I say, “You know, there’s actually a connection between machine learning and arts.”)

By Shariar Vaez-Ghaemi, Class of 2025

Deep Conversations Put the ‘Care’ in Healthcare

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The Duke Medical Ethics Journal (DMEJ) is a golden opportunity to listen to the ways the world around me hurts and heals. It means asking questions – who is being marginalized in my communities? Where is the injustice in my community? What can I do about it? And when these questions feel too big and too heavy, DMEJ means having a community of mentors, friends, and soul-strengtheners to ask the questions with me. Some of my most cherished experiences at Duke since freshman year have been those rooted in exploring the humanities.

Engaging with the field of ethics through the Kenan Institute of Ethics Living Learning Community as well leading the Duke Medical Ethics Journal (DMEJ) has given me a strong appreciation for the utilization of humanities in healthcare.

Before I saw the Spring 2021 DMEJ edition come together, I never realized how deeply identity could influence health. I had always thought of peoples’ identity in terms of cultural identity, not enough in terms of fertility or neurodiversity, until I read the pieces written by my fellow DMEJ writers. I realized more than ever that healthcare at its deepest level is not just about the biomedical model but it’s also about care, care for the values the lives of its practitioners and patients.

COVID-19 has also naturally brought up questions on the importance of mask-wearing, social distancing, and now, vaccinating. Though most students interested in entering the healthcare field typically fall on one side of the argument, it is safe to say that all of us had to take up more responsibility for ourselves and for others. What does it take to do what is right? The ethics (and effort!) surrounding this responsibility makes for deep conversations puts the “care” in healthcare. And these deep conversations are what DMEJ is all about.

Our upcoming issue, winter 2021, will be about the post-covid era. What does a return to normalcy even mean in an age where normal has been changed forever? And two of our bloggers have already written deeply affecting pieces on post pandemic mental health. To stay up to date on what DMEJ is up to, subscribe to our listserv. We’re always looking for more voices to join our conversation. 🙂

Guest post by Sibani Ram, Class of 2023

‘Anonymous Has Viewed Your Profile’: All Networks Lead to Re-Identification

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For half an hour this rainy Wednesday, October 6th, I logged on to a LinkedIn Live series webinar with Dr. Jiaming Xu from the Fuqua School of Business. I sat inside the bridge between Perkins and Bostock, my laptop connected to DukeBlue wifi. I had Instagram open on my phone and was tapping through friends’ stories while I waited for the broadcast to start. I had Google Docs open in another tab to take notes. 

The title of the webinar was “Can Anyone Truly Be Anonymous Online?” 

Xu spoke about “network privacy,” which is “the intersection of network analysis and data privacy.” When you make an account, connect to wifi, share your location, search something online, or otherwise hint at your personal information, you are creating a “user profile”: a network of personal data that hints at your identity. 

You are probably familiar with how social media companies track your decisions to curate a more engaging experience for you (i.e. the reason I scroll through TikTok for 5 minutes, then 30 minutes, then… Oh no! Two hours have gone by). Other companies track other kinds of data— data that isn’t always just for algorithmic manipulation or creepy-accurate Amazon ads (i.e. “Hey! I was just thinking about buying cat litter. How did Mr. Bezos know?”). Your name, work history, date of birth, address, location, and other critical identifying factors can be collected even if you think your profile is scrubbed clean. In a rather on-the-nose anecdote to his LinkedIn audience on Wednesday, Xu explained that in April 2021, over 500 million user profiles on LinkedIn were hacked. Valuable, “sensitive, work-related data,” he noted, was made vulnerable. 

Image courtesy of Flickr

So, what do you have to worry about? I know I tend to not worry about my personal information online; letting companies collect my data benefits me. I can get targeted Google ads about things I’m interested in and cool filters on Snapchat. In a medical setting, Xu said, prediction algorithms may help patients’ health in the long run. But even anonymized and sanitized data can be traced back to you. For further reading: in an essay published in July 2021, philosophers Evan Selinger and Judy Rhee elaborate on the dangers of “normalizing surveillance.”

The meat of Xu’s talk was how your data can be traced back to you. Xu gave three examples. 

The first was a study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas- Austin attempting to identify users submitting “anonymous” reviews for movies on Netflix (keep in mind this was 2007, so picture the red Netflix logo on the DVD box accordingly). To achieve this, they cross-referenced the network of reviews published by Netflix with the network of individuals signed up on IMDB; they matched those who reviewed movies similarly on both platforms with their public profiles on IMDB. You can read more about that specific study here. (For those unafraid of the full research paper, click here). 

Let’s take a pause to learn a new vocab word! “Signatures.” In this example, the signature was users’ movie ratings. See if you can name the signature in the other two examples.

The second example was conducted by the same researchers; to identify users on Twitter who shared their data anonymously, it was simply a matter of cross-referencing the network of Twitter users with Flickr users. If you know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy, you and that group of people are likely to initiate that same chain of following each other on every social media platform you have (it may remind you of the theory that you are connected by “six degrees of separation” from every person on the planet, which, as it turns out, is also supported by social media data). The researchers were able to identify the correct users 30.8% of the time. 

Time for another vocab break! Those users who connect groups of people who know a guy who know a guy who know a guy are called “seeds.” Speaking of which, did you identify the signature in this example? 

Image courtesy of Flickr

The third and final example was my personal favorite because it was the funkiest and creative. Facebook user data— also “scrubbed clean” before being sold to third-party advertisers— was overlain with LinkedIn user data to reveal a network of connections that are repeated. How did they match up those networks, you ask? First, the algorithm assigned a computed score to every individual user based on how many Facebook friends they have and one for every user based on how many LinkedIn connections they have. Then, each user was assigned a list of integers based on their friends’ popularity score. Bet you weren’t expecting that. 

This method sort of improves upon the Twitter/Flickr example, but in addition to overlaying networks and chains of users, it better matches who is who. Since you are likely to know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy, but you are also likely to know all of those guys down the line, following specific chains does not always accurately convey who is who. Unlike the seeds signature, the friends’ popularity signature was able to correctly re-identify users most of the time. 

Sitting in the bridge Wednesday, I was connected to many networks that I wouldn’t think could be used to identify me through my limited public data. Now, I’m not so sure.

So, what’s the lesson here? At the least, it was fun to learn about, even if the ultimate realization leaves us powerless against big data analytics. Your data has monetary value, and it is not as secure as you think: but it may be worth asking whether or not we even have the ability to protect our anonymity.

How To Hold a Bee and Not Get Stung

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Pictured from left to right are Lindsey Weyant, Andrew McCallum, and Will Marcus.

On Saturday, September 25, the Wild Ones club hosted an insect-themed outing with Fred Nijhout, an entomology professor at Duke. We visited a pond behind the Biological Sciences Building bordered by vegetation. Apparently, the long grasses and flowers are prime habitat for insects, which are often attracted to sunny areas and edge habitat. Along with several other students, I practiced “sweeping” for insects by swishing long nets through vegetation, a delightfully satisfying activity, especially on such a gorgeous fall day.

A species of skipper feeding on a flower. According to Fred Nijhout, the best way to distinguish butterflies (including skippers) from moths is by looking for knobbed antennae, characteristic of butterflies but not moths.

Professor Nijhout says much of his research focuses on butterflies and moths, but the insect biology class he teaches has a much broader focus. So does this outing. In just a couple hours, our group finds a wide array of species.

A milkweed bug (left) and a soldier beetle, two of the species we saw on Sunday.

Many of the insects we see belong to the order Hemiptera, a group sometimes referred to as “true bugs” that includes more than 80,000 species. We find leafhoppers that jump out of our nets while we’re trying to look at them, a stilt-legged bug that moves much more gracefully on its long legs than I ever could on stilts, spittlebugs that encase themselves in foam as larvae and then metamorphose into jumping adults sometimes called froghoppers, and yet another Hemipteran with a wonderfully whimsical name (just kidding): the plant bug.

Professor Nijhout shows us a milkweed leaf teeming with aphids (also in the order Hemiptera) and ants. He explains that this is a common pairing. Aphids feed on the sap in leaf veins, which is nutrient-poor, so “they have special pumps in their guts that get rid of the water and the sugars” and concentrate the proteins. In the process, aphids secrete a sugary substance called honeydew, which attracts ants.

The honeydew excreted as a waste product by the aphids provides the ants with a valuable food source, but the relationship is mutualistic. The presence of the ants affords protection to the aphids. Symbiosis, however, isn’t the only means of avoiding predation. Some animals mimic toxic look-alikes to avoid being eaten. Our group finds brightly colored hoverflies, which resemble bees but are actually harmless flies, sipping nectar from flowers. Professor Nijhout also points out a brightly colored milkweed bug, which looks toxic because it is.

Sixteen species of hoverfly, all of which are harmless. Note that hoverflies, like all flies, have only one pair of wings, whereas bees have two.
Image from Wikipedia user Alvesgaspar (GNU Free Documentation License, Creative Commons license).

Humans, too, can be fooled by things that look dangerous but aren’t. As it turns out, even some of our most basic ideas about risk avoidance—like not playing with bees or eating strange berries—are sometimes red herrings. When we pass clusters of vibrant purple berries on a beautyberry bush, Professor Nijhout tells us they’re edible. “They’re sweet,” he says encouragingly. (I wish I could agree. They’re irresistibly beautiful, but every time I’ve tasted them, I’ve found them too tart.) And on several occasions, to the endless fascination of the Wild Ones, he catches bees with his bare hands and offers them to nearby students. Male carpenter bees (which can be identified by the patch of yellow on their faces) have no stinger, and according to Professor Nijhout, their mandibles are too weak to penetrate human skin. It’s hard not to flinch at the thought of holding an angry bee, but there’s a certain thrill to it as well. When I cup my hands around one of them, I find the sensation thoroughly pleasant, rather like a fuzzy massage. The hard part is keeping them from escaping; it doesn’t take long for the bee to slip between my hands and fly away.

Professor Nijhout in his element, about to capture a male carpenter bee (below) by hand.

The next day, I noticed several bees feeding on a flowering bush on campus. Eager to test my newfound knowledge, I leaned closer. Even when I saw the telltale yellow faces of the males, I was initially hesitant. But as I kept watching, I felt more wonder than fear. For perhaps the first time, I noticed the way their buzzy, vibrating bodies go momentarily still while they poke their heads into blossoms in search of the sweet nectar inside. Their delicate wings, blurred by motion when they fly, almost shimmer in the sunlight while they feed.

Gently, I reached out and cupped a male bee in my hands, noticing the way his tiny legs skittered across my fingers and the soft caress of his gossamer wings against my skin. When I released him, his small body lifted into the air like a fuzzy UFO.

I realize this new stick-my-face-close-to-buzzing-bees pastime could backfire, so I don’t necessarily recommend it, especially if you have a bee allergy, but if you’re going to get face-to-face with a carpenter bee, you might at least want to check the color of its face.

Damla Ozdemir, a member of the Wild Ones, with a giant cockroach in Professor Nijhout’s classroom.

If you could hold all the world’s insects in one hand and all the humans in the other, the insects would outweigh us. More than 900,000 species of insects have been discovered, and there may be millions more still unknown to science. Given their abundance and diversity, even the experts often encounter surprises.“Every year I see things I’ve never seen before,” Professor Nijhout told us. Next time you step outside, take a closer look at your six-legged company. You might be surprised by what you see.

By Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

The Duke Dentist and her Research: Saving Children’s Teeth, One Tooth at a Time

Sticky post

Walking into our small meeting room with green scrubs and a white lab coat on, our special guest set her bag down in the front and stated “I fixed 60 teeth today and haven’t sat down since this morning.” To us, it sounds like a nightmare, but to Dr. Martha Ann Keels, working in her clinic and conducting dental research is a dream come true. 

Born and raised in North Carolina, Dr. Keels has kept her roots as she studied here at Duke. As a Duke undergrad, she received her bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and a minor in Art History, later choosing to become a pediatric dentist at UNC. It wasn’t long until she returned back to Duke to volunteer at Duke’s Children Hospital, and in 1986, she became the first pediatric dentist to get privileges to practice at Duke. She continues to run her own clinical practice alongside Duke Health System to this day, working for over 30 years!

“I get to feel the satisfaction that something I used my hands for helped alleviate pain in children,” Keels said. “I also get to watch them grow as they come in over the years. It feels super rewarding.”

With her passion and dedication, not only does she help those that enter her office, but she also conducts research on the side, wanting to help dentists all over.

Dr. Keels currently has her hands dirty with a major research project she has been working on for the past nine years. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, 42% of children between the ages of two to eleven years old have at least one cavity in their primary teeth, and 23% of those children are untreated. With how high these numbers are, she and a group of other researchers are trying to develop tools that allow pediatricians and pediatric dentists to be able to identify high risk factors of cavities in children and care for them before they do occur; tools like questionnaires, surveys, and ‘top 5 predictors…’.

Table of percentages of children with cavities corresponding to age, sex, race, and poverty (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research)

By observing a group of 1,300 children ever since birth, they have been analyzing all aspects of each child: collecting saliva, looking at biofilm (more commonly known as plaque), physical deformities in their teeth, and even social factors like parents’ dental experience. 

Despite the children still being fairly young, Dr. Keels reveals that a surprising amount of information has been found. “No one has ever looked at tight teeth– when your teeth are closely spaced– but we are seeing that it puts a child at high risk of cavities,” Keels said. She also adds that they have also begun to identify which types of bacteria help with reducing chances of getting a cavity, as well as bacteria that bring a high risk of creating a cavity.

 This also goes hand in hand with the microbiomes in our mouths. Dentists first believed that the microbiomes of the child’s caregiver affected the child’s microbiome, in the sense that their microbiomes would be similar from the beginning. Dr. Keels’s study says otherwise. It’s being shown that a child’s microbiome starts off as its own, unique microbiome, and it is over time that it begins to become similar to their caregiver’s microbiome.

With the vast amount of information already collected, Dr. Keels and her team continue to persevere, now wanting to push the study for another five more years. They want to start working with adolescents, wanting to also analyze mental states and how that might affect their dental hygiene and risks of cavities. 

Maybe in the near future, as you speak to your dentist at your next appointment, and they bring up a list of risk factors for cavities, who knows? That list or table could be coming from the one and only Dr. Martha Ann Keels.

Post by Camila Cordero, Class of 2025

New Blogger Nidhi Srivaths: Attracted by Words

Before I moved to the U.S, the concept of a “Starbucks name” was foreign to me, but after six cups of coffee that read everything from “Nemo” to just an unintelligible scrawl, I understood the need for it. Back home in India, my name was quite common, but having to repeat myself multiple times only to still be misheard made suddenly made feel unusually unique.

Speech can often be tricky, and growing up in a family that speaks four languages interchangeably, I’ve always been acutely aware of that. Missing a tongue roll on the word for “tell” in Kannada makes it dinner-table inappropriate, and a small vowel slip in Telugu can completely alter conversational context. I lived in India’s objectively best city, Hyderabad, that has its special version of Hindi, which was unacceptable in conversation with my mother’s own dialect. Language was thus the most unique part of my upbringing, and the unconventionally twisted sentences that combined the vocabulary of two languages and the grammar of another are characteristic of my childhood.

Raised amidst the chaotic storm of my family’s polyglotism, I found my shelter under the pages of books. Writing soon became a beautiful structure of stability for me, and the decisiveness of ink on paper drew me to it. At first, I began to read simply because I loved dragging my finger across the smooth finish of my brother’s gigantic encyclopedia but soon my childish captivation with the book turned to fascination with its contents. I loved hunting for and sounding out difficult words, and my favorite ones would always be the scientific terms.

So, the world of science was the logical next destination.

My strange love for the word “bioluminescence” led me to the ocean, and for months, I dreamed of glowing plankton and starfish. When “constellation” caught my fancy, I spent years imagining myself flying through the vast expanse of outer space, journeying to the very ends of the universe as an astronaut. From the cozy confines of my bedroom, I traversed through Egyptian ruins with “pharaoh”, Norse myths with “valkyrie” and dinosaur dig sites with “paleontology.” Finally, it was an anatomy book that bound me to the world of healthcare and the human body, and my brother’s weekly technology magazine that pulled me towards automation, before I settled on the middle ground I now love – biomedical engineering. Now a sophomore majoring in BME and ECE, I learn new words every day!

Scientific innovations and advancements are often looked at as difficult to understand, discouraging many from learning more about them. But science is embedded in every facet of our daily lives, and I believe it is essential (now, more than ever!) that its literature and progress become more accessible and understandable. As a child, it was the simple, clear and concise language of informal blogs and books that convinced me that I belonged in the fields I read about, and as a blogger, I want to convince many more that the world of science is well within their reach! Fancy terms like glycolysis may seem daunting, but everything can be broken down and made simpler (in this case, quite literally!). Blogging for Duke Research, I hope to meet trailblazers, learn and write about research that fascinates me, and make it accessible to more people. Along the way, I want to introduce the next inquisitive little girl to the exotic word that feeds her imagination, propelling her into the world of science!

However, beyond my selfless mission of spreading the good word of science and technology far and wide, I recently found a new, far more relatable reason to love writing – I don’t need a Starbucks name! It’s a lot easier to just tell you my name is Nidhi.

Post by Nidhi Srivaths, Class of 2024

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