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

Author: Alex Clifford

Library Shakedowns: Book Bans and Censorship

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“I started thinking about how I might be different, how my life might be different, how my conversations might be different, if [‘To Kill a Mockingbird’] had not been a book that I was able to read in the 8th grade… to keep reading and reading again,” recounted Professor Kisha Daniels in her opening remarks of last month’s “Policing Pages” panel. 

Professor Kisha Daniels is an Assistant Professor of the Practice of Education at Duke University and the moderator of Duke Alumni Lifelong Learning “Policing Pages: The American Classics” event.

What truly is more formative in the awkward, acned stretch of middle school than Lip-Smackered gossip and English class? Yellow page paperbacks, palimpsests of doodles and students from years past. Purchased on teacher budget scraps and booster club wrapping paper sales, Shakespeare, Orwell, a hundred used copies of “Tuck Everlasting”: stained, dog-eared, and coverless

Psychology and neuroscience researchers agree that reading (and, thus, books like “To Kill a Mockingbird”) weaves tapestries of yarny neurons and synapses, beneficial for the development of social-emotional skills, empathy, and creativity during childhood and adolescence. 

Yet, America has recently witnessed persistent efforts to ban certain titles from K12 schools. In 2004 and 2005, for example, Stanford Middle (here in Durham) challenged the inclusion of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in its own library, citing the novel’s use of racial slurs.

It ultimately was not removed from the shelves, but the book remains one of the most challenged/banned titles in U.S. school history.

Professor Sarah Ludington, a Duke Law faculty member and director of the First Amendment Clinic

In 2021, the American Library Association reported an unprecedented 729 book challenges. So why, Daniels prompted, are we seeing such a high number of banned books? And why now?

Before answering this, Professor Sarah Ludington clarified some of the misleading rhetoric propagated by the popular media. “’Banned books’ is more of a slogan,” she explained. More accurate is the idea of challenging a book, whether in a library or on the class curriculum. This does not necessarily mean the book will be outright banned or even removed from the shelf or, if it is banned, permanently. In fact, books can be reinstated, even after their removal, back to their shelf and the occasional dust bunny.

In North Carolina, such a statute exists in state law that bars an individual, like a single librarian, teacher, or parent, from undemocratically removing or banning a book. Instead, local administrative boards must take a vote.

PBS’s “Books Behind Bars”
Illustration by: Jane Mount

University Librarian Joseph Salem argued that social media platforms, like Facebook, and online groups, like Moms for Liberty, create tectonic shocks that trigger tidal waves of book challenges. They’re echo chambers: amplifying calls to remove specific books from school libraries, ping-ponging literary “hit-lists” through cyberspace with titles such as: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison (you can take a look at the full list here).

Joseph Salem is Duke’s newest University Librarian and Vice Provost for Library Affairs

These books disproportionately feature marginalized voices and are often “charged and sentenced” for containing “LGBTQ content, profanity, and/or sexual references.”

As we’re all aware, what once was local news can quickly leach into national discourse. A book ban in a rural Ohio county, for example, can be picked up by the local media, trend on Twitter, disseminate through Facebook until someone, say, in Texas or Arkansas or North Carolina decides they too want to challenge said book in their own school district.

This book-banning rhetoric and its implications are present elsewhere in education-related conversations. Take, for example, Florida’s dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” bill. In March, lawmakers in the Sunshine State argued that merely mentioning sexual orientation/gender identity in primary school settings is grounds for a lawsuit on the basis that such content is innately “sexually explicit,” no matter its context.

However, challenging certain books and even passing certain laws are usually not intentionally malicious acts. It is indisputable that some books simply do not belong on school bookshelves. A medical textbook, Ludington analogized, wouldn’t make sense in a library for children just learning how to read. But, in a high school with a more mature student body, its inclusion wouldn’t bat an eye. Further, in the U.S. more generally, First Amendment rights do not extend to all forms of speech anyways, including but not limited to “obscenity, child pornography, fighting words, and the advocacy of imminent lawless action.”

And though societal concern over the well-being of children is well-intentioned, it can often be misguided or out-of-proportion.

I don’t think it’s too outrageous to consider children as sentient and receptive, whether to new ideas, new perspectives, and/or new people.

Still, in the United States, a number of moral panics, concerning everything from poisoned Halloween candy to “Dungeons & Dragons” to subliminal messaging in rock music to Tide Pods, have been cause for parental concern.

In 1985, for example, Tipper Gore bought Prince’s “Purple Rain” album for her 11-year-old daughter and was shocked by its age-inappropriate lyrics. She took her concern to the Senate in a series of Congressional hearings which, though largely mocked, called for a music rating system like the kind adopted by Hollywood for movies. 

In 1985, Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, and John Denver (from left to right respectively) testified before the Senate against music censorship and the Parents Music Resource Center (P.M.R.C.). Notably, John Denver advocated for his song “Rocky Mountain High.

Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, and John Denver somehow managed to assemble into the eclectic “primary counsel” for the musical defense and eloquently argued that labeling and banning albums is akin to censorship.

Gore’s campaign was ultimately unsuccessful.

But, it’s not difficult to see how censorship concerns voiced in the Senate in the 80s mirror the ones voiced today.

Ludington, a self-proclaimed First Amendment enthusiast, added that “…inherent in our idea of freedom of speech is this notion that truth emerges from robust dialogue… The best way to counteract whatever pernicious effect there might be, say from a book that you wanted to ban, is actually to read the book and reason against it.” 

This kind of civil discourse is an idealism baked into the “apple pie” of American democracy. Quite arguably the Golden Delicious themselves. Over the course of U.S. history, there have been just and unjust efforts to suppress individuals’ freedom of speech. Take the infamous “yelling FIRE in a crowded theater” anecdote. 

Experts concur, however, that most censorship is unproductive and often does little to actually stymie the ideas it so desperately wants to quash. In fact, as Daniels pointed out, banning books from school libraries typically does not decrease their readership and can actually drive their sales up. 

But the implications of book banning run deep, implying that, as a society, there is little value in responsibly harboring and learning from certain (and often difficult) materials. 

Salem described a collection on hate groups, gathered by the Southern Poverty Law Center and possessed by the Duke University library. He said, “If we take a step back for a moment and think that everything in the Duke University library… is something we endorse without understanding the complexity of why we might have it, either to learn from it as a good or bad example… one might say that owning or stewarding means that we support what’s in that collection. I would push back on that vehemently. It doesn’t comport with our values at all.” 

After book banning efforts in school libraries reached an all time high in 2021, 2022 is trending to exceed last year’s figure.

Instead of arguing with disgruntled parents and Facebook groups, many underpaid librarians and teachers, Salem described, choose to self-censor, quietly removing contentious titles from their shelves to avoid unfair accusations lobbied at them in heated PTO meetings, over angry phone calls, or during school board votes. 

To oppose this form of censorship, Daniels, Ludington, and Salem agreed: Read the books! Parents, Facebook group members, and legislatures alike, read before challenging, before banning, and then after banning. Reading is really the preeminent way to avoid unnecessarily suppressing free speech in schools; to introduce yourself to new ideas, to new discourse, and to new perspectives. Daniels put it best, “The book is innocent until proven guilty.”

Give it a fair trial.  

In Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus describes empathy to Scout in a way which resonates with many of the “Policing Pages” talking points, saying: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

If interested in the “Policing Pages: The American Classics” discussion, click here to watch.

If interested in resources on book banning, check out the American Library Association for more information.

By Alex Clifford, class of 2024
By Alex Clifford, class of 2024

American Epidemics and the Viral Underclass

March 2020. The subsequent blur of months. Of spring into summer, fall into winter, a year into another and likely into the next. Like millions of humans around the world, 2020 itself feels infected, as if wrapped up with yellow caution tape. Virus dominates the current zeitgeist; pandemic won Merriam-Webster’s 2020 word of the year; vaccine in 2021.

We are all proto-virologists, sludging through the constant slew of “viral” media: novel variants, outbreaks, booster shots, mutations (a jargon in which we’re collectively fluent). 

In the somewhat-receding wake of COVID-19, like floodwater, viral fear recently surged again when the World Health Organization began reporting monkeypox (MPX) outbreaks in Europe and North America. The stigmatization of MPX patients as “disease-spreaders” (in the media, on the internet, in conversation, etc.) suggests these individuals have a kind of authority over the virulent strands of DNA in their bodies. This belief aligns with the etymology of “virus” from the Latin “poison,” a word that functions as both noun and verb. Passive and active. Culpable.

Alan Krumeweide in Contagion (Claudette Barius / Warner Bros.)

I’m reminded of Jude Law’s fear-mongering character in Contagion, Alan Krumewiede, the conspiracy theorist who conjectured MEV-1, the film’s fictional virus, was “Godzilla, King Kong, Frankenstein, all in one.” 

Of course, this sentiment did not bud from MPX or COVID-19 like a novel variant. No, it has existed in the United States for decades, if not longer, and it has not been dormant.

Dr. Stephen Thrasher, a scholar of the criminalization of HIV/AIDS at Northwestern University, stood in Duke’s anthropology lecture hall this month and drew parallels between the recent MPX/COVID-19 epidemics and that of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s-90s and stretching into the new millennium. He asked us to raise our hands if we personally knew someone with HIV/AIDS. A few did. If we knew someone who had died from HIV-related causes. A few less. What about COVID? The entire audience raised hands as if to signal the new era of viral infection.

Dr. Steven Thrasher is the inaugural Daniel H. Renberg Chair of social justice in reporting (with an emphasis on issues relevant to the LGBTQ community) and an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern. His research focuses on HIV in America.

Since the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1981, more than 700,000 people have died from HIV-related illness in the United States, a disproportionate number of whom were men who had sex with men and injection drug users (with poverty exacerbating the likelihood of acquisition).

As Thrasher historicized, the stigma that encapsulated HIV/AIDS significantly delayed life-saving interventions on the local and national scale. Prejudice hindered research funding, drug distribution, and government health agency mobilization. The rising tide of the HIV/AIDS epidemic was concurrent with increased violence towards the LGBTQ community, and gay men in particular, analogous to a king tide flooding the coastline.

Thrasher exemplified this taboo through the “patient zero” misconception, which was propagated by the media during the epidemic and embedded like a splinter in pop culture’s thumb (i.e. the film Patient Zero with Matt Smith, Stanley Tucci, and Natalie Dormer). 

Gaëtan Dugas was miscredited as Patient Zero of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America 
Credit: Fadoo Productions

Gaëtan Dugas, a Québécois Canadian flight attendant, was inappropriately labeled “patient zero” of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America. As Thrasher and other researchers have debunked, Dugas was, in fact, not the first person to bring HIV to the United States. Further, Dugas was not even included in the early infection group. And Dugas was Patient O (like oh), not zero, for Out-of-State. Yet, this contextualization of the virus endures despite being disproved. Upon diagnosis, many infected individuals will experience shame.

In the 1980s and 90s, HIV/AIDS was characterized as the “gay plague,” setting ablaze a moral panic in America comparable to that of the Satanic Panic, rock ‘n’ roll, and fear of razor blades stuffed into gooey 3 Musketeers bars at Halloween (and there’s an interesting overlap in the timing of these hysterias in the collective American consciousness). And just two months ago even, many people were characterizing MPX in the same accusatory and morally dubious way. 

Like with the AIDS epidemic, Thrasher said the US government failed to mobilize public health initiatives early enough to proactively stifle MPX outbreaks in spite of the disease’s well-documented diffusion across Europe and into neighboring Canada.

“We could’ve tapped the Strategic National Stockpile,” he argued. Thrasher listed multiple public health interventions that could have and should have been implemented with the first faint smoke signals of MPX in the United States (as they were in the past for meningitis and polio outbreaks). 

For context, the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) is a cache of medicines, antibiotics, and vaccines that the government started to accumulate just prior to 9/11 in 2001 and, seemingly, in an exponential manner after — almost like doomsday preppers hoarding freeze-dried beef stroganoff and cans of beans in their underground bunkers. Born from the smoking rubble and smoke of New York City following the terrorist attack, fear of biological warfare, especially the weaponization of smallpox, paralyzed the US (i.e. the Anthrax scare).

The SNS was tapped after 9/11, for 12 major hurricanes, COVID-19, and the swine flu (to name a few), but not for monkeypox.

As historically evidenced, mass vaccination and herd immunity effectively prevent the spread of viral infections, especially for slow-mutating viruses like MPX.

“We should have quickly vaccinated queer men and transmasc people,” Thrasher said, “building on a very historic anomaly which is that adults have been socialized to take vaccines en masse in a way that has not happened in many decades.” And because MPX and smallpox are closely related viruses, a rollout of the stockpile’s smallpox vaccine could have nipped the outbreak in the bud. 

But, the SNS was not tapped. 100 million doses remain stockpiled. There are nearly 28,000 total monkeypox cases documented in the United States.

A large focus of Thrasher’s research is on who is affected by viruses, and how, and why. Nearing 6.6 million COVID-19 deaths worldwide, many would argue that viruses — these ancient, non-life forms — are Earth’s “great equalizers,” as acknowledged by Thrasher in multiple publications. Evolution has pushed them to infect, replicate, and spread: machine-like and non-discriminatory.

But, he added, viruses are not great equalizers. Infection is inherently unequal. Again, we must ask the question who?

Thrasher’s book The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide was recently long-listed for the 2023 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in nonfiction

Viral infections disproportionately burden marginalized bodies and communities, a concept Thrasher framed as the viral underclass (coined by activist Sean Strub and reshaped by Thrasher to describe this phenomenon)Writing in his book of the same name, “… the viral underclass can help us think about how and why marginalized populations are subjected to increased harms of viral transmission, exposure, replication, and death.”  

Let’s return to the MPX vaccine. The Biden administration did not tap the SNS for mass vaccination. Instead, it rolled out meager health interventions at a snail’s pace (like Sisyphus pushing his stone up the hill). Still, many at-risk individuals, in particular men who have sex with men, opted to receive a two-shot regimen to protect themselves from the virus. Considering the viral underclass, Thrasher posed the following questions: 

Who is disproportionately burdened by MPX in the US? He answered, “Black and Latino men who have sex with men.” 

And, who is receiving the medical interventions to protect themselves from the painful infection? He answered again, “I got one MPX vaccine shot, almost everyone in line but me and a friend were white.” He describes the discrepancy between those receiving the vaccine and those most at-risk of acquiring MPX in his Scientific American article “Monkeypox Is a Sexually Transmitted Infection, and Knowing That Can Help Protect People.”

And his years of HIV research corroborate this trend.

From the New York Times, Michael Johnson has been working to overturn laws criminalizing HIV in the United States.

He spoke (and wrote in The Viral Underclass) about his time reporting the Michael Johnson court case in St. Louis, Missouri. Michael Johnson, a black, gay, former college wrestler, was sentenced to 30 years in prison after failing to disclose his HIV status to his sexual partners — a criminal offense. The prosecution had sought a maximum 60.5 years, practically a life sentence.

For context, in the state of North Carolina, the maximum sentence for voluntary manslaughter is a little under five and a half years. In the courtroom, Thrasher was privy to the prosecution’s smoking gun: Johnson had previously signed a legally-binding acknowledgment of his HIV diagnosis. With the flick of a pen, nondisclosure was a criminal offense.

In his interviews, however, Thrasher found that Michael Johnson was semi-illiterate and had not been properly informed of the legal implications of the document he had signed. Nor had he been informed of the consequences of breaking the legal contract. Nor had he been counseled or given any legal advice prior to being charged. 

Michael Johnson was released from prison 25 years early after his ruling was overturned. His is a body in the viral underclass. 

Excerpted from Thrasher’s book The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide
Vito Russo speaks at the 1988 ACT UP demonstration at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C.
Credit: Rick Gerharter/HBO Documentary Films

Concluding his lecture, Thrasher quoted AIDS activist Vito Russo’s Why We Fight speech from the 1988 ACT UP Demonstration at the Department of Health and Human Services. In reading the entire transcript, I found that Russo was aware of the viral underclass, as Thrasher theorized, despite the term not yet existing in the academic ethos. He said in his address: 

“If I’m dying from anything — I’m dying from the fact that not enough rich, white, heterosexual men have gotten AIDS…. Living with AIDS in this country is like living in the twilight zone. Living with AIDS is like living through a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches. Every time a shell explodes, you look around and you discover that you’ve lost more of your friends, but nobody else notices. It isn’t happening to them.” 

Is it possible to ever resolve the viral underclass in the US? As long as systemic inequities continue to exist, no. This may seem pessimistic or even cynical, but Thrasher concluded his lecture (and his book) with reserved optimism. “Let’s get to work,” he implored.

If we can identify and actively dismantle the systems that disproportionately burden certain populations with viruses and diseases, like a spool of yarn, we can begin to unravel the viral underclass in America.

Yes, infections should be treated with accessible and affordable medicine. Yes, healthcare should be expanded. Yes, we should continue to improve the efficacy of drugs and diagnostics. But, health interventions alone do not cure communities of disease.

Thrasher found that marginalized bodies will continue to be infected, in spite of medicinal intervention, if the inequities from which the viral underclass emerge are not concurrently cured. Let’s get to work.

If interested, here’s a link to Thrasher’s website and book: http://steventhrasher.com/

Post by Alex Clifford, Class of 2024

Is it Time to Decolonize Global Health Data?

In the digital age, we are well-acquainted with “data,” a crouton-esque word tossed into conversations, ingrained in the morning rush like half-caf cappuccinos and spreadsheets. Conceptually, data feels benign, necessary, and totally absorbed into the zeitgeist of the 21st century (alongside Survivor, smartphones, and Bitcoin). Data conjures up the census; white-coat scientists and their clinical trials; suits and ties; NGO board meetings; pearled strings of binary code; bar graphs, pie charts, scatter plots, pictographs, endless excel rows and columns, and more rows and more columns.

However, within the conversation of global health, researchers and laymen alike would more often than not describe data collection, use, and sharing as critical for resource mobilization, disease monitoring, surveillance prevention, treatment, etc. (Look at measles eradication! Polio! Malaria! Line graphs A, B, and C!)

Thanks to the internet, extracting health data is also faster, easier, and more widespread than ever . We have grown increasingly concerned, and rightfully so, about data ownership and data sovereignty.

Who is privy to data? Who can possess it? Can you possess it? As you can see, the conversation quickly becomes convoluted, philosophical even.

Dr. Wendy Prudhomme O’Meara is an associate professor at Duke University Medical School in the Division of Infectious Diseases, visiting professor at Moi University, and the Co-Field Director of Research for AMPATH. Her research focuses on malaria. 

Dr. Wendy Prudhomme O’Meara, moderator of the Data as a Commodity seminar on Sept. 29 and associate professor at Duke University Medical School in the Division of Infectious Diseases, discussed bioethical complexities of data creation and ownership within global health partnerships.

“We can see that activities—where data is being collected in one place, removed from the context, and value being extracted from it for personal or financial benefit — has very strong parallels to the kind of resource extraction and exploitation that characterized colonization,” she said in her introductory remarks.

Data, like other raw materials (i.e. coffee, sugar, tobacco, etc.), can be extracted, often disproportionately, from lower-middle income countries (LMICs) at the expense of the local populations. This reinforces unequal power dynamics and harkens to the tenets of colonialism and imperialism.

This observation is exemplified by panelist Thiago Hernandes Rocha’s research which focuses on public policy evaluation and data mining. He acknowledges that global health research, in general, should prioritize the health improvements of the studied community rather than publications or grant funding. This may seem somewhat obvious to you; however, though academic competition often fosters nuances in the field, it also contributes to the commercialization of global health. Don’t be shy, everyone point your finger at Big Pharma!

Though Dr. Rocha’s data mining technique refers to “pattern-searching” and analysis of dense data sets, I find “mining” to be an apt analogy for the exploitative potential of data extraction and research partnerships between higher income countries and LMICs.

Dr. Thiago Hernandes Rocha joins the discussion via Zoom. He is an advisor on health data analysis for the Pan American Health Organization.

Consider the British diamond industry in Cape Colony, South Africa, and the parallels between past colonial mineral extraction and current global health data extraction. Imagine taking a pickaxe to the earth.

Now consider the environmental ramifications of mining, and who they disproportionately affect. Consider the lingering social and economic inequalities. Of course, data is not a mine of diamonds (as your Hay Day farm might suggest) nor is it ivory or rubber or timber. It’s less tangible (you can’t necessarily hold it or physically possess it) and, therefore, its extraction also feels less tangible, even though this process can have very concrete consequences.

Data as a power dynamic is a rather recent characterization in academic discourse. Researchers and companies alike have pushed the “open data” movement to increase data availability to all people for all uses. You can see how, in a utopian society, this would be fantastic. Think of the transparency! I’m sure you can also see how, in our non-utopian society, this can be exploited.

Dr. Bethany Hedt-Gauthier, a Harvard University biostatistician and seminar speaker, described herself as “pro ‘open data’ … in a world without power dynamics” — an amendment critical to understanding research as a commodity itself.

She justified her stance by referencing the systematic review of authorship in collaborative health research in Africa that she conducted in collaboration with others in the field. They found that even when sub-Saharan African populations were the main sites of study, when partnered with high-income, elite institutions (like Duke or Harvard), the African authors were significantly less likely to be first or senior authors despite the comparable number of academics on both sides of the partnership. To what can we attribute this discrepancy?

Dr. Bethany Hedt-Gauthier is a biostatistician in health systems research that focuses on the optimization of care and health outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr. Hedt-Gauthier describes forms of capital that contribute to this issue, from cultural capital (i.e. credentials) to symbolic capital (i.e. legitimacy) to financial capital; however, she poses colonialism (and its continuity in socioeconomic and political power dynamics today) as the root of this incongruity from which the aforementioned forms of capital bud and flower like poisonous oleander. In recent years, institutions, including Duke, have increased efforts to “decolonize” global health to achieve greater equity, equal participation, and better health outcomes overall. 

Dr. Hedt-Gauthier briefly chronicled some of her own research in Rwanda at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Within her research partnerships, she recollected slowing down, thoughtfully engaging in two-way dialogue, and posing questions like the following: “Who is involved [in the partnership]?” “Are all parties equally represented in paper authorship?” “If not, how can we share resources to ensure this?” “How can we assure that the people involved in the generation of data are also involved in the interpretation of its results?” “Who has access to data?” “What does co-authorship look like?”

Investing time and energy into multi-country databases, funding collaborative research infrastructures, removing barriers within academia, and training researchers are just some of the methods proposed by the speakers to facilitate equitable partnerships, data sharing and use, and continued global health decolonization.

Dr. Osondu Ogbuoji is an Assistant Research Professor at Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI) and Deputy Director at the Center for Policy Impact in Global Health at DGHI.

Dr. Osondu Ogbuoji, the final panelist, puts it best: “… We should ensure that the people in the room having the discussion about what values the data has should be as diverse as possible and ideally should have all the stakeholders. In our own research, sometimes we think we have an idea of what data to collect, but then we talk to the country partners and they have a totally different idea.”

Though the question of data ownership may feel lofty or intangible, though data legality is confusing, though you may feel yourself adrift in the debate of commodity and capital, the speakers have thrown you a buoy, grab on, and understand that generally:

It is necessary to engage with “data” in a communicative and critical manner; it is necessary to build research partnerships that are synergistic and reciprocal; and, finally, it is necessary to approach global health via these partnerships to advance the field towards greater equity.

Post by Alex Clifford, Class of 2024

Watch the recorded seminar here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRmFzif8a1c

Meet New Blogger Alex: Pipetting Writer from Coastal SC

When I write about myself, it always reads like a poorly crafted match.com zinger. Boring, awkward, and something along the lines of:

I’m Alex. Aquarius. Love dogs, classic rock, old NCIS episodes. $1 Goodwill paperback thrillers, marked with “Happiest 53rd Richard! All my love, Janet” and “8/17/2005, Saw this and thought of you!” And I like to ask myself why Steven King’s Carrie conjures up thoughts of said person? Who’s Richard? How’s Janet?

I also love coffee. And tea. Peppermint, of course. Irish breakfast, sure. Chamomile, why not. But I think I really just like collecting mugs — hearty ceramics, dainty porcelain, hand-painted, non-dishwashable, chipped, stained monstrosities. It might be a problem though (as I don’t have much shelf space).

Favorite genre of film? It’s got to be anything in the Meg Ryan romcom cinematic universe. Or the Brat Pack coming-of-age cannon. Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire, About Last Night, Pretty in Pink. Really just the Judd Nelson je ne sais quoi.

My dog and I celebrating her 11th birthday this summer!

I think my 2nd grade superlative was “Wormiest Bookworm,” whatever that means. That might’ve been the year I read every Nancy Drew book in the library and founded the neighborhood’s first and only detective business. I do wish I could say I’ve Jules Verne’d the world in 80 days — circumnavigating all five nebulous oceans, frozen Arctic plains, Swiss peaks, and continental slopes; Phileas Fogging my way through the Mediterranean, aperitivo in hand. But I’m a bit unworldly in the geographic sense. I’ve only been out of the country once to boat up next to Niagara Falls, wearing a thin, plastic poncho and an I <3 Canada tee (though I’ve possibly made it a second time to Canada after getting lost on the circumference of a lake in Vermont).

I’ve only ever lived in Charleston, SC, never straying too far from its labyrinth of intercostals and waterways, its Theseus-like shrimpers, gliding into port. At Duke, I spend half my time majoring in molecular/cellular biology and the other lamenting my landlockedness, missing Charleston’s temperate sea breeze.

Beach in the middle of winter

Growing up there was all briny inlet and Waffle House, midnight bacon, butter pats, cordgrass, molting blue crab, churches on every street corner and in every denomination, weak coffee and greasy hash brown breakfast, September hurricanes, salt, cicadas, farm stands packed with peaches, a once-in-a-hundred year 6-inch snowfall that closed school for two weeks.

On Saturdays, I sharktooth-hunted with my sisters in pluff mud plots now developed (strangers tend to find the smell of the marsh pungent, but I think it’s character building). Fished for red drum. Searched for pearls in half-mooned oyster mouths. Kayaked down creeks.

Charleston’s a literary city, or so I’ve always heard. I think Edgar Allen Poe’s ghost haunts a cobble-stoned alley downtown or something like that. And if not an alley then a quaint B&B, its porch bearing creaky rocking chairs and purple coneflower. I went to an arts-specialized middle and high school for creative writing, wrote some bad poetry in my formative years and a couple of questionable short films, then went to college and somehow fell into the field of cell bio and now I spend a decent chunk of my free time researching genetic heart disease in a campus lab. Feeding cardiomyocytes via gentle pipette like they’re sea monkeys.

I like to picture the act of writing and that of science as similar — fraternal twins or first cousins — and I don’t think it a coincidence that early philosophers were our first physicians, mathematicians, physicists, chemists, etc. Both fields challenge us to pose questions about our world, about its inhabitants, its oddities, its nuances. We just go about answering them differently.

For this reason, I’m incredibly excited to join Duke’s Research Blog, to write about science and innovation, to poeticize protein structures or to search for lyricism in neuronal action potentials the way a deep sea troller searches for the elusive giant squid. I just think there’s something so wonderful about learning new things, cradling little curiosities that often lead nowhere, and doing so through an accessible, enjoyable medium.

Post by Alex Clifford, Class of 2024

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