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

Students exploring the Innovation Co-Lab

Author: Anika Ayyar

Star Wars and Space Travel: The Study of Science through Popular Movies

Who says class has to be all about lectures and labs? Andrés Aragoneses, a quantum optics researcher at Duke, has created a class called “Science & Science Fiction” in conjunction with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke (OLLI). The course explores hot science fiction topics through the study of famous movies – from Star Wars, to Independence Day, to The Martian.

Professor Aragoneses teaching the class about the Big Bang Expansion

Professor Aragoneses teaching the class about the Big Bang Expansion

The unconventional idea to use movies as the primary medium for the class was born during Professor Aragoneses’s time teaching in Spain. Physics professors at his university had found that in order to get students to follow their classes, they had to do more than just explain Newton’s law and demonstrate practice problems. So, they began to relate these complex topics to media that the students were familiar with — news, cinema, and comics.

Each week, the OLLI group watches small scenes of movies that use scientific concepts in their production, and then learns the true theories behind these concepts. Most movies are quite fantastic when it comes to their scientific aspects, and this leads to incorrect representations of cosmological, physical, and astronomical phenomena on the screen. Focusing on a single concept each class, Aragoneses debunks Hollywood myths about natural disasters, comets, solar flares, neutrinos, and magnetic fields (to name a few).

Astronauts traveling with fuel packing in "Mission to Mars"

Astronauts traveling with jet packs in “Mission to Mars”

One week, the class focused on the dynamics of travel in space, calling on “Mission to Mars” to provide them with their screen reference. In one particular scene, astronauts are walking on Mars, propelled by air coming out of their backs and pushing them forward. The class learned that due to the lack of frictional force in space, the astronauts would, in reality, never run out of fuel since they would not need to push as hard as the movie suggested, using up much less fuel. The popular movie reference allowed Aragoneses to easily segue into the topics of friction, Newton’s laws, and the reality of space travel for the remainder of the class, while still holding the students’ attention. The group also analyzed the scientifically impossible behavior of deadly neutrinos in scenes from “2012” to learn about their true movement, and watched parts of “Independence Day” to better understand meteors and atmospheric interferences.

Astrophysicist searching for new planets by analyzing star movements.

Astrophysicist searching for new planets by analyzing star movements.

Occasionally, Aragoneses uses scientifically sound movies to study different concepts. One scene in Star Wars features Obi-Wan searching for a planet he is not able to find in existing maps. Yoda explains to him that the movement of the other stars in the sky is suspicious, and reasons that something must exist in between, although Obi-Wan cannot see it. The scene demonstrates the true manner in which astrophysicists search for new planets; since they are so tiny, they analyze movements of surrounding stars to detect their presence rather than searching for the planets themselves. Clearly the Grand Jedi Master knew a thing or two about the real universe!

Aragoneses’s idea to teach the class in such a unique fashion has evidently captivated his students; they often return after the week with new questions, suggestions for future movie references, and an excitement to continue their exploration of elaborate scientific concepts. The class has been a learning experience for Aragoneses as well, as he has had the chance to watch movies he hadn’t previously seen, and develop a deeper understanding of the concepts he teaches. He has so thoroughly enjoyed his work on the class in fact, that he is considering continuing to teach for OLLI in the future.

For those who are interested in enrolling in one of Aragoneses’s future classes, or another class hosted by OLLI, please visit their website. The Institute teaches about 100 different courses that range in topic from history, to science, to politics, to religion. The courses are taught both by Duke professors, and by other individuals from the Durham area.

Anika Ayyar_100Post by Anika Ayyar

Duke co-hosts THInC: Triangle Health Innovation Challenge

Blue Devils and Tar Heels may be rivals on the court, but there is little doubt they can be partners in research and innovation.


Participants broke into teams, and spent the weekend working on their solutions.

Last weekend, the Duke School of Medicine Innovation and Entrepreneurship Activity Group and the Carolina Health Entrepreneurship Initiative jointly organized the first ever Triangle Health Innovation Challenge (THInC), a 48-hour ‘hackathon’  that brought together students, clinicians, engineers, and business people from around the Triangle to collaborate on solving problems in healthcare and medicine.

The organizers wanted to tap into the collective knowledge of the Triangle to tackle healthcare problems in novel ways, and to engage individuals who did not necessarily see themselves as healthcare innovators.

“We realized that the Triangle has an immense pool of academic, clinical, and technical talent, but these groups of people rarely interact,” said co-organizer Tanmay Gokhale, an M.D./Ph.D. student in Biomedical engineering at Duke. “We wanted to bring them all into the same room and empower them to make a difference in healthcare.”


Teams had the chance to meet with mentors, who advised them on their ideas and business strategies.

On Friday, the first evening of the event, 127 participants pitched 44 different healthcare problems, proposed 25 solutions, and broke into 15 teams that were, for the most part, interdisciplinary and involved members from across the Triangle.

Many Pratt School of Engineering students, both undergraduate and graduate, participated in the event, and several were members of  winning teams.

Each team worked through the weekend, designing and creating a product that delivered on a proposed solution. The projects ranged from evaluating treatment and clinic options for patients through a mobile app, to informing future patients by crowdsourcing opinions and advice from people who had experienced similar medical situations.


Teams, judges, and audience members gathered in the Trent Semans Center for Health Education on Sunday afternoon for the final presentations.

The ingenuity and quality of the solutions that were presented on Sunday afternoon was stunning; each team had drawn from their own firsthand experiences with the shortcomings and challenges of the healthcare system to deliver targeted, nuanced products that tackled meaningful issues.

In a time-cap of three minutes, each team presented the fruits of their weekend of hacking, and were judged not only on their creativity and technical complexity, but also on clinical and business feasibility. Four winners were awarded $13,000 in cash and credits to work with the API (programming interface) of Validic, a Durham company that collects de-identified patient data from medical devices, wearables and apps.

Team Tiba, the winner of the grand prize, created a wearable physical therapy activity tracker to ensure that patients performed their physical therapy exercises regularly and correctly.

Team Breeze, winner of the runner-up prize, presented a smart lung function trainer and app to encourage pursed-lip breathing exercises in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Team Leia, the winners of the Mosaic Health Solutions prize, developed a digital to-do list for physicians, which integrated intimately with stores of data in order to send live push notifications about patient updates and prioritize different actions for different studies. The team hoped to improve

Team Tiba, winners of the Grand Prize and the Validic mHealth Prize, pose after the awards ceremony.

Team Tiba, winners of the Grand Prize and the Validic mHealth Prize, pose after the awards ceremony.

patient and physician satisfaction as well as patient safety, by assuring that doctors were up to date on conditions and constantly in sync with changes and improvements. Their prototype piggybacked off of current medical APIs, and queried existing data, making it easy for the roughly 150,000 clinicians who already store their data online to easily transition to the app.

Given the immense success of THInC, the organizers said they’re already planning to do it again next year. They’d like to recruit more students as well as more professional developers and programmers so that more teams could come away with a functioning prototype of their solution.

For any questions regarding the event, or planning, promoting, or executing next year’s event, please contact Interested individuals can also join the Health 2.0 NC Triangle group to participate in other similar events and meet similarly minded people in the area – all are welcome!

Anika Ayyar_100Post By Anika Ayyar

Duke Engineers Build Bridges in Rwanda

Summer means something different for everyone; for some, the months after school let out mean total relaxation, and for others, it’s time to get cranking on jobs and internships that help build on new skills. For a group of ten Duke students in the Pratt School of Engineering, this past summer consisted of an incredible trip to Rwanda through Duke Engineers for International Development, (DEID) a student-led club on campus.


Members of the Duke team of DEID standing on the bridge they built.

My roommate, Catherine Wood (Pratt ’18) was one of the fearless students on this trip. Her specific group of DEID members partnered with Bridges to Prosperity, a non-profit that specializes in building bridges in underdeveloped countries, especially within Africa and Latin America.


Members of the team carrying rocks on their heads.

Her team began working on their project at Duke last spring, when they virtually designed their bridge using a software program called AutoCAD. They worked through multiple rounds of prototypes to get their design approved by Bridges to Prosperity, and organized construction schedules and determined what quantities of each material they would need for their project.


Inauguration ceremony for the bridge.

In mid-May, the team journeyed to Rwanda and began the digging process. Much of their work consisted of carrying rocks from where they were dumped (about 150 meters away) to the bridge site, and while some people used wheelbarrows to transport the rocks, others (like Catherine on the left) mastered the skill of carrying them on their heads!

The students spent six weeks building the tiers and anchors of the bridge, and laying the cable, and after their power tools arrived, they spent the final week laying wooden slats across the bridge to establish the surface. Throughout the process, the team worked closely with a university in Kigali, Rwanada called IPRC, where they fabricated metal material for both their bridge, and another bridge being built nearby.


Martha, a member of the Duke team, playing jumprope with some of the local children.

Physically building the bridge and working through the experience of designing and constructing an architecture project was certainly one of the main highlights of the trip, but getting to know the other students on the trip as well as the local community was Catherine’s favorite part. The Duke team lived behind the local school, so they played basketball and soccer daily with the children, and helped them practice their English. They also grew very close with the workers after spending nine or ten hours a day working alongside them. Though conversation was initially difficult, the team moved past the language barrier after the first couple weeks, and forged genuine, meaningful relationships.

As for the Duke team, Catherine remarks that she could not have asked for a better group of people to work with day in and day out. Each member of the team put so much effort into building relationships with community members, and into building the bridge itself, and no member of the team took any aspect of their experience for granted.

Anika Ayyar_100By Anika Ayyar

Blake Wilson: Pioneer of the Modern Cochlear Implant

By Anika Ayyar

Despite severe hearing difficulties, William H. Gates Sr. sat listening to his son, Bill Gates, deliver an acceptance speech after winning a Lasker Award for Public Service in 2013. He was able to participate in this momentous occasion thanks to his cochlear implant, an electronic device that simulates the functions of the cochlea (a cavity in the inner ear) by transmitting sound signals to the brain.

Coincidentally, three of the masterminds behind this very device were also present at the same ceremony, as they themselves were being awarded Lasker Awards for their work developing the modern cochlear implant. Blake Wilson, one of these scientists, noted during his speech at Duke last week that it was quite an experience for them to watch a device they had pioneered transform a personal interaction between William Gates Sr. and his son, right before their eyes.

Blake Wilson displays a cochlear implant.

Blake Wilson displays a cochlear implant.

Rewind 50 years, and few people would have paused to even consider the possibility of such a device that could capture sound signals and make them audible to individuals whose ears were damaged. Physiologist Merle Lawrence stated in 1964 that stimulation of auditory nerves would never result in perception of speech, while Rainer Klinke, a German neurophysiologist, went as far as to claim that “from a physiological point of view, cochlear implants [would] not work”.

Luckily, Blake Wilson thought differently. Starting in the 1980’s, he worked with teams across the globe, from the US, to Belgium, to Australia, to develop an innovative device that was able to process sound waves. As of 2015, this innovation has restored hearing capabilities to more than 450,000 individuals.

The path to generating an effective cochlear implant was characterized by continuous discovery and improvement. The first step in the process was simply to build a safe electronic device that had a lifespan of many years. This device was engineered to generate artificial electrical stimuli that triggered neurons in deaf individuals, whose sensory cells do not respond to the body’s chemical signals.

Diagram of cochlear implant in the human ear.

Diagram of cochlear implant in the human ear.

As the diagram on the right shows, both external (radio receiving and transmitting coils, processing chip) and internal (an array of electrodes around the helical structure of the inner ear) components work together in a cochlear implant to allow for speech recognition and hearing capabilities without the functionality of the cochlea’s natural functions.

Once scientists successfully engineered a device that stimulated the inner ear without causing any harm, teams in Palo Alto, Vienna, and Melbourne worked to enhance the implant by utilizing the tonotopic arrangement of the human auditory system. Stanford Professor Blair Simmons discovered that cadence, in addition to place of stimulation, was an important aspect of auditory signals, and he spearheaded experiments that sent different pulses to different electrodes in order to create a variety of perceptions of pitch.

By 1988, the NIH said that 1 in 20 patients who had received cochlear implants were able to carry out normal conversations without lip reading- a phenomenal accomplishment. The Consensus Statement also suggested that multichannel implants might be more effective than single-channeled ones, an idea that brought Wilson from Palo Alto to Duke in 1989, where he began to research multilateral stimulation. With support from the Research Triangle Institute, as well as members of the Duke community such as Dean Katsouleas of the Pratt School, Wilson was able to provide bilateral electrical stimulation to patients, by combining electric and acoustic methods for people who had residual, low frequency hearing. He also worked with colleagues to compress the range of sounds in the environment to a narrower range that could be transmitted to patients, by using filters to divide sounds into different frequencies.

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Blake Wilson converses with a user of a cochlear implant. The joy in the individual’s face is clear- and she is able to understand Wilson clearly!

Together, these prominent advances as well as numerous others fueled the evolution of the modern cochlear implant, which is projected to reach more than one million deaf and hearing-impaired individuals by 2020.

Listening to Wilson describe the history and progress of the project made it clear that the modern cochlear implant is not only a revolutionary creation in itself, but also that it holds enormous potential as a model for further development of other neural processes, such as restoration of vision and balance. Perhaps the most inspirational part of Wilson’s presentation however, was his description of the profound joy experienced by patients, doctors, and families whenever a cochlear implant restores auditory capability to an individual who otherwise never dreamt it possible to be able to hear.

Blake Wilson can be contacted at

To learn more about the event, please visit this page.

View the entire lecture, with introductions by Provost Sally Kornbluth and Dean Tom Katsouleas of the Pratt School of Engineering. (1:08)

Joining the Team: Anika Ayyar

By Anika Ayyar

Hi! My name is Anika Ayyar and I am currently a Duke freshman. I grew up in warm, lovely Saratoga, California, where I picked up my love for long distance running, organic farming, and the ocean. When I was 14, I moved to across the country to Exeter, New Hampshire to attend a boarding high school, and here I developed a deep interest in biology and medicine. Exeter’s frost and snow were far from the Cali weather I was used to, but my fascinating classes, caring teachers, and wonderful friends more than made up for the cold.

My sophomore semester abroad program at The Island School, on an island called Eleuthera in the Bahamas, certainly provided a welcome change to East coast weather as well. At the Island School I studied marine biology and environmental conservation, earned my SCUBA certification, and spent time with the local middle schoolers refurbishing a library and stocking it with books. I was also part of a research team that studied species richness and diversity on patch reefs off the coast of the island.

Dissecting fruit fly larvae under the microscope at the Seung Kim Lab at Stanford.

Dissecting fruit fly larvae under the microscope at the Seung Kim Lab at Stanford.

My marine research stint in the Bahamas drove me to join a molecular biology lab the summer after I returned; a decision that transformed my passion for science. At the Seung Kim Lab for Pancreas Development at Stanford University, I worked on a project that used binary systems to study the expression of specific genes related to insulin production and diabetes in fruit flies. I soon grew so immersed in my work that I wanted to share the project with others in the scientific community at Exeter, and my research mentors, biology professors, and I worked to create a novel course where other students could take part in the project as well. This unique research collaboration, called the “StanEx” project, proved to be a huge success, allowing other students to experience the trials and joys of real-world research while also generating Drosophila fly strains that were useful to the larger scientific community. If you are interested in reading more, check out my website about the StanEx project!

While my current interests lie more at the intersection of technology and medicine, I hope to be involved in equally compelling and fulfilling research here at Duke. Hearing about the various projects my professors are working on, and reading about the discoveries made in labs on campus, I have no doubt that this will be the case.

Outside of classes and research, I enjoy being part of the Duke Debate team, and Lady Blue, one of Duke’s all-female a cappella groups. You can often find me on the trails on a long run, or trying out a new dessert recipe I found on Pinterest. I am beyond excited to be a part of the research blogging team, and can’t wait to start attending talks and interviewing research personalities whose stories I can share with our readers!

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