Duke Research Blog

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

Overdiagnosis and the Future of Cancer Medicine

For many years, the standard strategy for fighting against cancer has been to find it early with screening when the person is still healthy, then hit it with a merciless treatment regimen to make it go away.

But not all tumors will become life-threatening cancers. Many, in fact, would have caused no issues for the rest of the patients’ lives had they not been found by screening. These cases belong to the category of overdiagnosis, one of the chief complaints against population-level screening programs.

Scientists are reconsidering the way to treat tumors because the traditional hit-it-hard approach has often caused the cancer to seemingly go away, only to have a few cells survive and the entire tumor roar back later with resistance to previously effective medicine.

Dr. Marc Ryser, the professor who gave this meaty talk

In his May 23 talk to Duke Surgery, “Cancer Overdiagnosis: A Discourse on Population Health, Biologic Mechanism and Statistics,” Marc Ryser, an assistant professor at Duke’s Departments of Population Health Sciences and Mathematics, walked us through how parallel developments across different disciplines have been reshaping our cancer battle plan. He said the effort to understand the true prevalence of overdiagnosis is a point of focus in this shift.

Past to Future: the changing cancer battle plan
Credit: Marc Ryser, edit: Brian Du

Ryser started with the longstanding biological theory behind how tumors develop. Under the theory of clonal sweeps, a relatively linear progression of successive key mutations sweeps through the tumor, giving it increasing versatility until it is clinically diagnosed by a doctor as cancer.

Clonal sweeps model, each shade is a new clone that introduces a mutation

With this as the underpinning model, the battle plan of screen early, treat hard (point A) makes sense because it would be better to break the chain of progression early rather than later when the disease is more developed and much more aggressive. So employing screening extensively across the population for the various types of cancer is the sure choice, right?

But the data at the population level for many different categories of cancers doesn’t support this view (point B). Excluding the cases of cervical cancer and colorectal cancer, which have benefited greatly from screening interventions, the incidence of advanced cases of breast cancer and other cancers have stayed at similar levels or actually continued to increase during the years of screening interventions. This has raised the question of when screening is truly the best option.

Scientists are thinking now in terms of a “benefit-harm balance” when mass-screening public health interventions are carried out. Overdiagnosis would pile up on the harms side, because it introduces unnecessary procedures that are associated with adverse effects.

Thinking this way would be a major adjustment, and it has brought with it major confusion.

Paralleling this recent development on the population level, new biological understanding of how tumors develop has also introduced confusion. Scientists have discovered that tumors are more heterogeneous than the clonal sweeps model would make it appear. Within one tumor, there may be many different subpopulations of cancer cells, of varying characteristics and dangerousness, competing and coexisting.

Additional research has since suggested a more complex, evolutionary and ecological based model known as the Big Bang-mutual evolution model. Instead of the “stepwise progression from normal to increasingly malignant cells with the acquisition of successive driver mutations, some cancers appear to evolve more like a Big Bang, where the malignant ability is already concentrated in the founder cell,” Ryser said.

As the first cell starts to replicate, its descendants evolve in parallel into different subpopulations expressing different characteristics. While more research has been published in favor of this model, some scientists remain skeptical.

Ryser’s research contributes to this ongoing discussion. In comparing the patterns by which mutations are present or absent in cancerous and benign tumors, he obtained results favoring the Big Bang-mutual evolution model. Rather than seeing a neat region of mutation within the tumor, which would align with the clonal sweeps model, he saw mutations dispersed throughout the tumor, like the spreading of newborn stars in the wake of the Big Bang.

How to think about mutations within a tumor
credit: NASA

The more-complicated Big Bang-mutual evolution model justifies an increasingly nuanced approach to cancer treatment that has been developing in the past few years. Known as precision medicine (point C), its goal is to provide the best treatment available to a person based on their unique set of characteristics: genetics, lifestyle, and environment. As cancer medicine evolves with this new paradigm, when to screen will remain a key question, as will the benefit-harm balance.

There’s another problem, though: Overdiagnosis is incredibly hard to quantify. In fact, it’s by nature not possible to directly measure it. That’s where another area of Ryser’s research seeks to find the answers. He is working to accurately model overdiagnosis to estimate its extent and impact.

Going forward, his research goal is to try to understand how to bring together different scales to best understand overdiagnosis. Considering it in the context of the multiscale developments he mentioned in his talk may be the key to better understand it.

Post by Brian Du

Kicking Off a Summer of Research With Data+

If the May 28 kickoff meeting was any indication, it’s going to be a busy summer for the more than 80 students participating in Duke’s summer research program, Data+.

Offered through the Rhodes Information Initiative at Duke  (iiD), Data+ is a 10-week summer program with a focus on data-driven research. Participants come from varied backgrounds in terms of majors and experience. Project themes range  from health, public policy, energy and environment, and interdisciplinary inquiry.

“It’s like a language immersion camp, but for data science,” said Ariel Dawn, Rhodes iiD Events & Communication Specialist. “The kids are going to have to learn some of those [programming] languages like Java or Python to have their projects completed,” Dawn said.

Dawn, who previously worked for the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, arrived during the program’s humble beginnings in 2015. Data+ began in 2014 as a small summer project in Duke’s math department funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The following year the program grew to 40 students, and it has grown every year since.

Today, the program also collaborates with the Code+ and CS+ summer programs, with  more than 100 students participating. Sponsors have grown to include major corporations such as Exxonmobil, which will fund two Data+ projects on oil research within the Gulf of Mexico and the United Kingdom in 2019.

“It’s different than an internship, because an internship you’re kind of told what to do,” said Kathy Peterson, Rhodes iiD Business Manager. “This is where the students have to work through different things and make discoveries along the way,” Peterson said.

From late May to July, undergraduates work on a research project under the supervision of a graduate student or faculty advisor. This year, Data+ chose more than 80 eager students out of a pool of over 350 applicants. There are 27 projects being featured in the program.

Over the summer, students are given a crash course in data science, how to conduct their study and present their work in front of peers. Data+ prioritizes collaboration as students are split into teams while working in a communal environment.

“Data is collected on you every day in so many different ways, sometimes we can do a lot of interesting things with that,” Dawn said.  “You can collect all this information that’s really granular and relates to you as an individual, but in a large group it shows trends and what the big picture is.”

Data+ students also delve into real world issues. Since 2013, Duke professor Jonathan Mattingly has led a student-run investigation on gerrymandering in political redistricting plans through Data+ and Bass Connections. Their analysis became part of a 205-page Supreme Court ruling.

The program has also made strides to connect with the Durham community. In collaboration with local company DataWorks NC, students will examine Durham’s eviction data to help identify policy changes that could help residents stay in their homes.

“It [Data+] gives students an edge when they go look for a job,” Dawn said. “We hear from so many students who’ve gotten jobs, and [at] some point during their interview employers said, ‘Please tell us about your Data+ experience.’”

From finding better sustainable energy to examining story adaptations within books and films, the projects cover many topics.

A project entitled “Invisible Adaptations: From Hamlet to the Avengers,” blends algorithms with storytelling. Led by UNC-Chapel Hill grad student Grant Class, students will make comparisons between Shakespeare’s work and today’s “Avengers” franchise.

“It’s a much different vibe,” said computer science major Katherine Cottrell. “I feel during the school year there’s a lot of pressure and now we’re focusing on productivity which feels really good.”

Cottrell and her group are examining the responses to lakes affected by multiple stressors.

Data+ concludes with a final poster session on Friday, August 2, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the Gross Hall Energy Atrium. Everyone in the Duke Community and beyond is invited to attend. Students will present their findings along with sister programs Code+ an the summer Computer Science Program

Writing by Deja Finch (left)
Art by Maya O’Neal (right)

How Many Neuroscientists Does it Take to Unlock a Door?

Duke’s Summer Neuroscience Program kicked off their first week of research on June 4 with a standard morning meeting: schedules outlined, expectations reiterated, students introduced. But that afternoon, psychology and neuroscience professor Thomas Newpher and undergraduate student services coordinator Tyler Lee made the students play a very unconventional get-to-know-you game — locking them in a room with only one hour to escape.

Not the usual team building activity: Students in Duke’s 8-week Summer Neuroscience Program got to know each other while locked in a room.

Bull City Escape is one of a few escape rooms in the Triangle, but the only one to let private groups from schools or companies or families to come and rent out the space exclusively. Like a live-in video game, you’re given a dramatic plot with an inevitably disastrous end: The crown jewels have been stolen! The space ship is set to self-destruct! Someone has murdered Mr. Montgomery, the eccentric millionaire! With minutes to go, your rag-tag bunch scrambles to uncover clues to unlock locks that yield more clues to yet more locks and so on, until finally you discover the key code that releases you back to the real world.

This summer’s program dips into many subfields, in hopes of pushing the the 16 students (most of them seniors) toward an honors thesis. According to Newpher, three quarters of the senior neuroscience students who participated in the 2018 SNP program graduated with distinction last May.

From “cognitive neuro” that addresses how behavior and psychology interacts with your neural network, to “translational neuro” which puts neurology in a medical context, to “molecular and cellular neuro” that looks at neurons’ complex functions, these students are handling subjects that are not for the faint of heart or dim of mind.

But do lab smarts carry over when you’re locked in a room with people you hardly know, a monitor bearing a big, red timer, blinking its way steadily toward zero?

Apparently so. The “intrepid team of astronauts” that voyaged into space were faced with codes and locks and hidden messages, all deciphered with seven minutes left on the clock, while the “crack-team of detectives” facing the death of Mr. Montgomery narrowly escaped, with less than a minute to spare. At one point, exasperated and staring at a muddled bunch of seemingly meaningless files, a student looked at Dr. Newpher and asked, “Is this a lesson in writing a methods section?”

The Bull City Escape website lists creative problem-solving, focus, attention to detail, and performance under pressure as a few of the skills a group hones by playing their game — all of which are relevant to this group of students, many of whom are pre-med. But hidden morals about clarity and strength-building aside, Newpher picked the activity because it allows different sides of people’s personalities to come out: “When you’re put in that stressful environment and the clock is ticking, it’s a great way to really get to know each other fast.”

By Vanessa Moss
By Vanessa Moss

Pot Not So Harmless for Teens

Marijuana is becoming legalized and decriminalized to the point that more than 63 percent of Americans have access to medical and recreational cannabis. But researchers and policy experts still don’t know very much about the long-term health effects.

The 2019 annual symposium by Duke’s Center on Addiction & Behavior Change,  “Altered States of Cannabis Regulation: Informing Policy with Science,” provided some scientific answers. Madeline Meier, assistant professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and a former Duke post-doc, spoke about her longitudinal research projects that offer critical insights about the long-term effects of cannabis use.

Meier investigates the relationship between cannabis use and IQ in a 38-year-long study that has been collecting data on a group of 1,000 people born in New Zealand since birth. Longitudinal studies like this that follow the same group of individuals across their lifespan are vital to understanding the effects of extended cannabis use on the human body, but they are difficult to conduct and keep funded. The 95 percent retention rate of this study is quite impressive and provides much-needed data.


Madeline Meier of Arizona State University

The researchers had tested the babies’ IQ at early childhood, then conducted regular IQ and cannabis use assessments between the ages of 18 and 38. They found that participants who heavily used weed for extended periods of time experienced a significant IQ drop, as well as other impairments in learning and memory skills. Specifically, users who had three or more clinical diagnoses of cannabis dependency, defined as compulsive use despite physical, legal, or social problems caused by the drug, showed an average 6-point IQ drop over the years. Those who only tried the drug a few times showed no decline, and those who never used weed showed a 1-point IQ increase.

Notably, however, the results depended on age of onset and level of use. Meier emphasized that her results do not support the common misconception that any amount of weed use can immediately lead to IQ decline. To the contrary, Meier’s team found that short-term, low-level use did not have any effect on IQ; only heavy users suffered the negative effects. The age of onset of cannabis use was critical, too: Adolescents were more vulnerable to the drug’s harms, with study participants who started using as adolescents showing an 8-point drop in IQ points. Given what we know about adolescents’ affinity for risky behavior, specifically around experimentation with drugs, this finding is particularly worrisome.

In addition to causing cognitive impairment, persistent cannabis use jeopardizes people’s psychosocial functioning as well. The Dunedin longitudinal study has also revealed that people who continued to use weed despite multiple dependency diagnoses experienced downward social mobility, relationship problems, antisocial workplace behavior, financial difficulties, and even higher numbers of traffic convictions. In short, social life is likely to be perilous for heavy weed users.

While some have suggested that the harmful effects of weed might be caused not by the drug itself but by the reduced years of education, low socioeconomic status, mental health problems, or simultaneous use of tobacco, alcohol or other drugs among weed users, Meier and her team found that the impairments persisted even when these factors were accounted for. Cannabis alone was responsible for the effects reflected in Meier’s research. In fact, there is limited evidence for the opposite causational link: weed use may be the cause of mental health problems rather than being caused by them. One study found a weak correlation between years of marijuana use and depression, but Meier was careful to point out that it would take “a lot of cannabis use to lead to clinically diagnosed depression.”

Given this data, Meier called on the policy-makers in the room to focus their efforts on delaying the onset of cannabis use in youth and encouraging cessation (especially among adolescents). In appealing to the researchers, she underlined the need for additional longitudinal studies into the mechanisms and parameters of cannabis use that produce long-term impairments.

As public and political support of marijuana legalization grows, we must be careful not to underestimate the dangers of the drug. Without knowing the full extent of the risks and benefits of weed, policy-makers cannot effectively promote public health, safety, and social equity.

Guest Post by Deniz Ariturk

The Power of Bass Connections Teamwork

Does yoga improve emotional regulation? Why don’t youth vote in elections? Can regular exercise combat anxiety and depression? How do we encourage girls to pursue careers in STEM fields? These are some of the questions explored by Bass Connections teams at Duke this year. After a year of hard work, several teams presented their answers in 5-minute flash talks at the EHDx event on April 9, and their audience was very impressed by their research.

Karina Heaton and Caleb Cooke present on their Bass Connections project, Wired for Learning

Bass Connections is a program at Duke that allows students to engage with real world problems, and apply their classroom knowledge to solve problems in society. Accepted students spend a year or more working with an interdisciplinary team of faculty, undergraduates, and graduate students on a project within the five theme areas of Bass Connections: Brain & Society, Information, Society & Culture, Global Health, Education & Human Development, and Energy & Environment.

The eleven teams that presented at EHDx were part of the Education and Human Development theme, so they spent the year exploring questions related to advancing educational systems, or exploring other areas in support of positive life outcomes for youth. Each team selected representatives to speak for five minutes on the work they have accomplished this year, and the event became a competition when the moderators announced the audience would vote for the best talk at the end.

The winning talk was presented by Bruny Kenou, a Duke undergraduate

The winner of this competition was Bruny Kenou, presenting on behalf of the Virtual Avatar Coaches project. The goal of this team was to create a peer to peer coaching program to support college students struggling with mental health. This project aims to fight stigma with a platform that allows students to send an anonymous text and receive immediate help from a peer. Peer coaches will take a semester-long course to prepare for their role in the program, and the hope is for this to eventually improve the lives of many students suffering from a fear of stigmas and labels.

The talks were followed by a reception and poster session. The team that took the blue ribbon this time was Mindfulness in Human Development. The objective of this team is to improve the lives of middle school students in Durham with a yoga and mindfulness intervention during the school day. The team has found that taking a break for yoga in the middle of the day has had positive effects on empathy, emotional regulation, and body image on the young students. Did someone say namaste?

The winner of the poster contest was the Mindfulness in Human Development Team

Honestly, I didn’t vote — I couldn’t pick a favorite! From designing a new and inclusive curriculum for elementary schools and helping kids learn computer science to investigating educational policy in Brazil and promoting awareness of female philosophers throughout history, each presentation was so impressive. It was easy to see that all of these teams have all been hard at work to affect positive change in society. If they can do this much in under a year, who knows what these talented undergraduates will accomplish in a lifetime!

Post by Anne Littlewood, Trinity ’21

Don’t Drink the Tap

Have you ever questioned the quality of the water you drink every day? Or worried that cooking with tap water might be dangerous? For most of us, the answer to these questions is probably no. However, students from a Bass Connections team at Duke say we may want to think otherwise.

Image result for image of water

From bottle refilling stations to the tap, drinking water is so habitual and commonplace that we often take it for granted. Only in moments of crisis do we start worrying about what’s in the water we drink daily. The reality is that safe drinking water isn’t accessible for a lot of people.

Image result for pink hog farm water
Pig waste discoloring lagoon water

Images like this hog farm motivated the Bass Connections project team DECIPHER to take a closer look at the quality of water in North Carolina. On April 16 they presented their concerning findings from three case studies looking at lead contamination, coal ash impoundments, and aging infrastructure at the Motorco Music Hall.

Motorco in Durham. The talk was inside, though.

Nadratun Chowdhury, a Ph.D. student in Civil and Environmental Engineering, investigated lead contamination in water. Lead is an abundant and corrosion-resistant material, making it appealing for use in things like paint, batteries, faucets and pipes. While we’ve successfully removed lead from paint and gasoline, a lot of old water pipes in use today are still fashioned from lead. That’s not good – lead is very toxic and can leach into the water.

Just how toxic is it? Anything over a blood-lead level concentration of fifty parts per billion – fifty drops of water in a giant Olympic swimming pool – is considered dangerous. According to Duke graduate student Aaron Reuben, this much lead in one’s blood is correlated with downward social mobility, serious health concerns, diminished capacity to regulate thoughts and emotions, and hyperactivity. Lower income and minority areas are more at risk due to the higher likelihood of owning contaminated older homes.

Rupanjali Karthik, a Master of Laws student, conducted research on the intersection of water and aging infrastructure in Orange County. Breaks in water pipes are common and can result in serious consequences, like the loss of 9 million gallons of drinkable water. Sometimes it takes 8 or 9 months just to find the location of a broken pipe. In 2018, the UNC-Chapel Hill water main break caused a huge shortage on campus and at the medical center.

Excess fluoridation is also an issue caused by aging infrastructure. In February 2017, a combination of human and machine error caused an excessive fluoride concentration coming out of an Orange County Water Treatment Plant. People were advised not to use their water even to shower. A UNC basketball game had to move locations, and stores were completely swept of bottled water.

Another issue is that arsenic, a known carcinogen, is often used as the fluoridation agent. We definitely don’t want that in our drinking water. Fluoridation isn’t even that necessary these days when we have toothpaste and mouthwash that supports our dental health.

Tommy Lin, an undergraduate studying Chemistry and Computer Science, topped off the group’s presentation with findings surrounding coal ash in Belmont, NC. Coal ash, the residue after coal is burned in power plants, can pollute rivers and seep into ground water, affecting domestic wells of neighboring communities. This creates a cocktail of highly concentrated heavy metals and carcinogens. Drinking it can cause damage to your nervous system, cancer, and birth defects, among other things. Not so great.

The group’s presentation.

Forty-five plastic water bottles. That’s how much water it takes Laura, a Belmont resident, to cook her middle-sized family Thanksgiving. She knows that number because it’s been her family’s tradition the past three years. The Allen Plant Steam Station is a big culprit of polluting water with coal ash. Tons of homes nearby the station, like Laura’s, are told not to use the tap water. You can find these homes excessively stockpiled with cases on cases of plastic water bottles.

These issues aren’t that apparent to people unless they have been directly impacted. Lead, aging infrastructure, and coal ash all pose real threats but are also very invisible problems. Kathleen Burns, a Ph.D. student in English, notes that only in moments of crisis will people start to care, but by then it may be too late.

So, what can people do? Not much, according to the Bass Connections team. They noted that providing clean water is very much a structural issue which will require some complex steps to be solved. So, for now, you may want to go buy a Brita.

Will Sheehan
Post by Will Sheehan

How the Flu Vaccine Fails

Influenza is ubiquitous. Every fall, we line up to get our flu shots with the hope that we will be protected from the virus that infects 10 to 20 percent of people worldwide each year. But some years, the vaccine is less effective than others.

Every year, CDC scientists engineer a new flu virus. By examining phylogenetic relationships, which are based on shared common ancestry and relatedness, researchers identify virus strains to target with a vaccine for the following flu season.

Sometimes, they do a good job predicting which strains will flourish in the upcoming flu season; other times, they pick wrong.

Pekosz’s work has identified why certain flu seasons saw less effective vaccines.

Andrew Pekosz, PhD, is a researcher at Johns Hopkins who examines why we fail to predict strains to target with vaccines. In particular, he examines years when the vaccine was ineffective and the viruses that were most prevalent to identify properties of these strains.

A virus consists of RNA enclosed in a membrane. Vaccines function by targeting membrane proteins that facilitate movement of the viral genome into host cells that it is infecting. For the flu virus, this protein is hemagglutinin (HA). An additional membrane protein called neuraminidase (NA) allows the virus to release itself from a cell it has infected and prevents it from returning to infected cells.  

The flu vaccine targets proteins on the membrane of the RNA virus. Image courtesy of scienceanimations.com.

Studying the viruses that flourished in the 2014-2015 and 2016-2017 flu seasons, Pekosz and his team have identified mutations to these surface proteins that allowed certain strains to evade the vaccine.

In the 2014-2015 season, a mutation in the HA receptor conferred an advantage to the virus, but only in the presence of the antibodies present in the vaccine. In the absence of these antibodies, this mutation was actually detrimental to the virus’s fitness. The strain was present in low numbers in the beginning of the flu season, but the selective pressure of the vaccine pushed it to become the dominant strain by the end.

The 2016-2017 flu season saw a similar pattern of mutation, but in the NA protein. The part of the virus membrane where the antibody binds, or the epitope, was covered in the mutated viral strain. Since the antibodies produced in response to the vaccine could not effectively identify the virus, the vaccine was ineffective for these mutated strains.

With the speed at which the flu virus evolves, and the fact that numerous strains can be active in any given flu season, engineering an effective vaccine is daunting. Pekosz’s findings on how these vaccines have previously failed will likely prove invaluable at combating such a persistent and common public health concern.

Post by undergraduate blogger Sarah Haurin
Post by undergraduate blogger Sarah Haurin


Chronicling Migrant Deaths Along the US-Mexico Border

Science, especially social science, is rarely apolitical. Nonetheless, researchers are often hesitant to engage with the political implications of their work. Striving to protect their objective, scientific stance, they leave the discussing and at times the fighting to the politicians and legislators.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason de León is not one of those researchers. Politics is not merely implicated in his work, but rather drives it. De León studies undocumented migration between Mexico and the United States.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León directs the Undocumented Migration Project.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León directs the Undocumented Migration Project.

As director of the Undocumented Migration Project, De León studies what happens to the bodies of migrants crossing the desert to reach the U.S. using “any genre I can steal from,” he told an audience at Duke University on April 5. Using tools from archeology, forensics, photography, and ethnography, de León and his team have been providing novel insights into one of the most urgent political challenges currently facing the nation.

De León acknowledged the political reality of his work immediately by opening his talk with a quote from President Trump about building a “great wall.” However, he was quick to clarify that the problem of missing migrants is not partisan. Rather, it has a long history that he argues started with the 1993 immigration enforcement policy, “Prevention through Deterrence.” This policy’s aim was to redirect illegal immigration to the desert rather than to stop it. Politicians hoped that in the desert, where security is weak and the terrain treacherous, the natural terrain would serve as a border wall. Inherent in this policy is the assumption that migrant life is expandable.

In the wake of this policy, the human smuggling industry in northern Mexico experienced a swift influx and the number of known migrant deaths began to rise. Since the 1990s, over 600 migrant bodies have been recovered from the Sonoran Desert of Arizona where de León conducts his research. Until his team conducted the first forensic experiments on the site, people could only speculate as to what was happening to the bodies of missing loved ones hoping to make it across the border. Now, de León can offer some helpful if heartbreaking data.


De León examines the human consequences of U.S. immigration policy in his book, “The Land of Open Graves”

De León’s archeological method, “desert taphonomy,” examines both the natural and cultural processes that determine what happens to a dead body. Anthropologists studying the body’s decomposition were initially interested only in natural factors like the climate and scavenging animals. Recently, they have realized that the decomposition process is as social as it is natural, and that the beliefs and attitudes of the agents involved affect what happens to human remains. According to this definition, a federal policy that leaves dead bodies to decompose in the Arizona desert is taphonomy, and so is the constellation of social, economic, and political factors that drive people to risk their lives crossing a treacherous, scorching desert on foot.

Guided by this new approach, de León studies social indicators to trace the roots of missing bodies, such as “migrant stations” made up of personal belongings left behind by migrant groups, which he says can at times be too big to analyze. De León and his team document these remnants with the same respect they pay to any traditional archeological trail. Items that many would dismiss as trash, such as gendered items including clothes and hygiene products, can reveal much needed information about the makeup of the migrant groups crossing the desert.

De León argues that human decomposition is a form of political violence, caused by federal policies like Prevention through Deterrence. His passion for his research is clearly not driven by mere intellectual curiosity; he is driven by the immense human tragedy of migrant deaths. He regularly conducts searches for missing migrants that families reach out to him about as a desperate last measure. Even though the missing individuals are often unlikely to be found alive, de León hopes to assuage the trauma of “ambiguous loss,” wherein the lack of verification of death freezes the grief process and makes closure impossible for loved ones.

The multifaceted nature of de León’s work has allowed him to inspire change across diverse realms. He has been impactful not only in academia but also in the policy and public worlds. His book, “The Land of Open Graves,” is accessible and poetic. He has organized multiple art exhibitions that translate his research to educate and empower the public. Through the success of these installations, he has come to realize that exhibition work is “just as valuable as a journal article.”

Backpacks left behind by undocumented immigrants in the exhibition,
“State of Exception.”

Hearing about the lives that de León has touched suggests that perhaps, all researchers should be unafraid to step outside of their labs to not only acknowledge but embrace the complex and critical political implications of their work.

Guest Post by Deniz Ariturk

Science Gets By With a Little Help From Its Friends

There are many things in life that are a little easier if one recruits the help of friends. As it turns out, this is also the case with scientific research.

Lilly Chiou, a senior majoring in biology, and Daniele Armaleo, a professor in the Biology Department had a problem. Lilly needed more funding before graduation to initiate a new direction for her project, but traditional funding can sometimes take a year or more.

So they turned to their friends and sought crowdfunding.

Chiou and Armaleo are interested in lichens, low-profile organisms that you may have seen but not really noticed. Often looking like crusty leaves stuck to rocks or to the bark of trees, they — like most other living beings — need water to grow. But, while a rock and its resident lichens might get wet after it rains, it’s bound to dry up.

If you’re likin’ these lichens, perhaps you’d like to support some research…

This is where the power of lichens comes in: they are able to dry to a crisp but still remain in a suspended state of living, so that when water becomes available again, they resume life as usual. Few organisms are able to accomplish such a feat, termed desiccation tolerance.

Chiou and Armaleo are trying to understand how lichens manage to survive getting dried and come out the other end with minimal scars. Knowing this could have important implications for our food crops, which cannot survive becoming completely parched. This knowledge is ever more important as climate becomes warmer and more unpredictable in the future. Some farmers may no longer be able to rely on regular seasonal rainfall.

They are using genetic tools to figure out the mechanisms behind the lichen’s desiccation tolerance[. Their first breakthrough came when they discovered that extra DNA sequences present in lichen ribosomal DNA may allow cells to survive extreme desiccation. Now they want to know how this works. They hope that by comparing RNA expression between desiccation tolerant and non-tolerant cells they can identify genes that protect against desiccation damage.  

As with most things, you need money to carry out your plans. Traditionally, scientists obtain money from federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health, or sometimes from large organizations such as the National Geographic Society, to fund their work. But applying for money involves a heavy layer of bureaucracy and long wait times while the grant is being reviewed (often, grants are only reviewed once a year). But Chiou is in her last semester, so they resorted to crowdfunding their experiment.

This is not the first instance of crowdfunded science in the Biology Department at Duke. In 2014, Fay-Wei Li and Kathleen Pryer crowdfunded the sequencing of the first fern genome, that of tiny Azolla. In fact, it was Pryer who suggested crowdfunding to Armaleo.

Chiou (left) and Armaleo in a video.

Chiou was skeptical that this approach would work. Why would somebody spend their hard-earned money on research entirely unrelated to them? To make their sales pitch, Chiou and Armaleo had to consider the wider impact of the project, rather than the approach taken in traditional grants where the focus is on the ways in which a narrow field is being advanced.

What they were not expecting was that fostering relationships would be important too; they were surprised to find that the biggest source of funding was their friends. Armaleo commented on how “having a long life of relationships with people” really shone through in this time of need — contributions to the fund, however small, “highlight people’s connection with you.” That network of connections paid off: with 18 days left in the allotted time, they had reached their goal.

After their experience, they would recommend crowdfunding as an option for other scientists. Having to create widely understood, engaging explanations of their work, and earning the support and encouragement of friends was a very positive experience.

“It beats writing a grant!” Armaleo said.

Guest Post by Karla Sosa, Biology graduate student


Open Communication is Key to Research in Schools

One of the things that excited me most about coming to Duke was the amount of research being done on campus, from theoretical physics to biological field work or cultural anthropology. I recently had the opportunity to attend a panel about conducting research in schools. As someone who has only ever done biological and chemistry-based lab work, I was eager to learn more about how research is conducted in other disciplines.

Doing research in schools is particularly challenging because it includes so many parties. The research goals must align with the school district’s priorities, collaboration must occur with the teachers, administrators and researchers about the design of the study and feasibility of implementations, and there must be cooperation from the students who are often young children unaware of the research going on.

Ultimately, the core role of schools is to educate children. Thus, in order to conduct research, the team needs to find a way to provide a clear benefit to schools for participation and make sure of protecting instruction time, reducing the burden on teachers.

The main purpose of the panel was to help Duke researchers better understand how to effectively interact and conduct research in schools. This was very well reflected in the four panelists Amy Davis, Cherry Johnson, Michele Woodson, and Holle Williams who each gave short, individual presentations.

Essentially,  the goal of a school is to provide high-quality education to the students. So to conduct research, researchers must find a way to make their goals applicable to the teachers.

Davis, the coordinator of grants, research, and development in Durham Public Schools explained that because of their large minority population, researchers often want to partner with them. Davis explained that researchers should strive to work collaboratively in a way that will yield what the researcher needs but also benefit the school. The focus of the teachers and administrators is not on research and they are not experts in things like research design.

She urged researchers to first reach out to her because she knows which schools would be a viable fit and can help provide the language to talk directly to them. Furthermore, she addressed that researchers sometimes need to have the flexibility to alter the research design when working in schools.

Johnson, the Director of Research and Grant Development in Johnston County Public Schools began by explaining how her district is driven by principles of relationships, relevance, and innovation.

She added that they are  “always interested in collab opportunities between universities and JCPS.”

However, studies that can aid in furthering their priorities, namely innovation, teacher recruitment and social and emotional learning will have a higher likelihood of being conducted successfully.

What makes the county so unique is that they are almost two districts within one.

“We still have notable lines between the haves and have nots,” Johnson added referring to large the socioeconomic differences between the Raleigh commuters and farm families.

To address some of these challenges, JCPS are participating in many partnerships with universities like NC State, UNC and Duke including a study with Dr. Leslie M. Babinski, associate research professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy.

Dr. Babinski conducting research in schools
Dr. Babinski working with students

Ultimately, university research is not a school district’s top priority. However, Woodson added that if the research has the ability to aid the school in accomplishing their goals then it increases the likelihood of success for both parties.

The last speaker was Holle Williams the Director of Main Campus Institutional Review Board at Duke University. Most schools require the approval of Duke’s IRB, which aims to protect the rights and welfare of human research subjects. Williams explained that their goal is to understand the intent of the researcher’s project.

“We want to make sure that what you are doing, what you are contemplating meets the definition of research” Williams stated.

Understanding intent allows then to distinguish research from other kinds of projects where research can help the school but also must contribute to the universal knowledge of a given education based topic.

A big emphasis of the talk was open communication. Both the school representatives and director of IRB highlighted that in order to most efficiently carry out a research project, the researchers should make sure to reach out to both the schools as well as main campus IRB. Through effective communication, strong partnerships can be built between the Duke community and local schools to conduct research that benefits both parties.

Post by Anna Gotskind

The Adolescent Brain Isn’t so Bad, Really

Adriana Galván, PHD (Photo from the Duke Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Colloquium Series, DIBS)

More often than not, teenagers are portrayed in the media as troublesome, emotionally reactive, and difficult to deal with. They are widely considered to be risk-takers, and prone to making poor choices.

But is taking risks necessarily a bad thing? Should adolescents be seen as bad people? Adriana Galván, PHD, doesn’t think so.

Galván is a neuroscientist and professor at UCLA, where she studies sleep, emotion, learning, stress, and decision-making in the adolescent brain. She came to Duke on Friday, April 5 as part of the DIBS Center for Cognitive Neuroscience’s Colloquium Series.

Humans have an extended period of adolescence, because our brains take a very long time to complete development, Galván said. Adolescence is currently defined as the period between the onset of puberty and the end of developmental plasticity. During this time, teen brains are constantly changing, and these physical changes are linked to socioemotional changes in behavior.

The Brain’s Reward System: meso-limbic pathway shown in green (Photo from WikiCommons: Oscar Arias-Carrión1, Maria Stamelou, Eric Murillo-Rodríguez, Manuel Menéndez-González and Ernst Pöppel)

One of the most prominent differences between adolescent and adult brains can be found in the brain’s reward system. Research has shown that adolescents have higher levels of activation in the mesolimbic system and ventral striatum regions of the brain, areas that are very important in reward processing.

Galván believes that this greater reward system excitability in teenagers may explain why they engage in more risky behavior than adults.

A study done by Galván and her former student, Emily Barkley-Levenson, investigated the stereotype of risk-taking in adolescents. Sure enough, when tested against adults in a gambling game, adolescents were more likely to take risks. However, a closer look at the data suggests that this might not be such a bad thing.

For disadvantageous and neutral gambles, adolescents didn’t differ from adults at all. But when it came to advantageous gambles, adolescents were far more likely than adults to accept the risk. This suggests that risk-taking behavior in teens might actually be adaptive, and put young people at an advantage when it comes to making the choices that lead to innovation and discovery.

Adolescents were also shown to exhibit better learning from outcomes than adults. Adolescence is a period of time where young people are constantly receiving feedback from their environment, and learning about the world around them from social interactions and relationships.

Another of Galván’s students, Kaitlyn Breiner, found that adolescents experienced high levels of emotional distress when their expectations of social feedback were violated. This was true regardless of whether the participants were receiving positive or negative unexpected feedback; they were just as distressed by an unexpected compliment as they were by an unexpected insult. Galván hypothesizes this is because relief is a very powerful emotion, and adolescent participants were looking to find comfort in a validation of their beliefs about their social relationships. It’s comforting to feel like your interpretation of the social world is correct, especially during the shifting world of adolescence.

Adolescents learn about their world through social interactions with friends (Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Glenn Waters)

Galván and her team have also investigated the role of mesolimbic activation in mediating distress.

Following the 2016 US Presidential election, participants in Los Angeles were asked if they felt personally affected by the election. The research team then measured the activation in their nucleus accumbens (a region of the mesolimbic system that plays a role in reward) and looked for symptoms of depression. Of those who reported feeling affected by the outcome of the election, Galván found that people with high activation in their nucleus accumbens had less depressive symptoms than those with low activation in this area. This suggests that high activation of the reward system plays a role in mediating depression. If adolescent brains experience these higher levels of reward system activation, might this protect them from depression?

The bottom line is, adolescents are not bad people, and they aren’t stupid either. In some ways, they may even be smarter than adults. Teens are better at learning from outcomes, more likely to take advantageous risks, and they experience higher levels of activation in their reward system, which could have important implications for resilience. The research shows that teenagers are far more capable – and smarter – than the world believes. Let’s give them a little more credit.

Post by Anne Littlewood, Trinity ’21

Building a Mangrove Map

“Gap maps” are the latest technology when it comes to organizing data. Although they aren’t like traditional maps, they can help people navigate through dense resources of information and show scientists the unexplored areas of research.

A ‘gap map’ comparing conservation interventions and outcomes in tropical mangrove habitats around the world turns out to be a beautiful thing.

At Duke’s 2019 Master’s Projects Spring Symposium, Willa Brooks, Amy Manz, and Colyer Woolston presented the results of their year-long Masters Project to create this map.

You’d never know by looking at the simple, polished grid of information that it took 29 Ph.D. students, master’s students and undergraduates nearly a full year to create it. As a member of the Bass Connections team that has been helping to support this research, I can testify that gap maps take a lot of time and effort — but they’re worth it.

Amy Manz, Willa Brooks, and Colyer Woolston present their evidence map (or gap map) at the 2019 Master’s Projects Spring Symposium

When designing a research question, it’s important to recognize what is already known, so that you can clearly visualize and target the gaps in the knowledge.

But sifting through thousands of papers on tropical mangroves to find the one study you are looking for can be incredible overwhelming and time-intensive. This is purpose of a gap map: to neatly organize existing research into a comprehensive grid, effectively shining a light on the areas where research is lacking, and highlighting patterns in areas where the research exists.

In partnership with World Wildlife Fund, Willa, Amy, and Colyer’s team has been working under the direction of Nicholas School of the Environment professors Lisa Campbell and Brian Silliman to screen the abstracts of over 10,000 articles, 779 of which ended up being singled out for a second round of full-text screening. In the first round, we were looking for very specific inclusion criteria, and in the second, we were extracting data from each study to identify the outcomes of conservation interventions in tropical mangrove, seagrass, and coral reef habitats around the world.

Coastal Mangroves (Photo from WikiCommons: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

While the overall project looked at all three habitats, Willa, Amy, and Colyer’s Master’s Project focused specifically on mangroves, which are salt-tolerant shrubs that grow along the coast in tropical and subtropical regions. These shrubs provide a rich nursery habitat to a diverse group of birds and aquatic species, and promote the stability of coastlines by trapping sediment runoff in their roots. However, mangrove forests are in dramatic decline.

According to World Wildlife Fund, 35 percent of mangrove ecosystems in the world are already gone. Those that remain are facing intense pressure from threats like forest clearing, overharvesting, overfishing, pollution, climate change, and human destruction of coral reefs. Now more than ever, it is so important to study the conservation of these habitats, and implement solutions that will save these coastal forests and all the life they support. The hope is that our gap map will help point future researchers towards these solutions, and aid in the fight to save the mangroves.

This year’s team built a gap map that successfully mapped linkages between interventions and outcomes, indicating which areas are lacking in research. However, the gap map is limited because it does not show the strength or nature of these relationships. Next year, another Bass Connections team will tackle this challenge of analyzing the results, and further explore the realm of tropical conservation research.

Post by Anne Littlewood, Trinity ’21

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