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

Author: Anna Gotskind Page 1 of 3

Duke First-Year Founds Cryptocurrency Security Startup, Harpie

“Crypto is scaling so quickly but security systems are still the same as they were in 2013.” Those are the words of Daniel Chong, a recent Duke student whose new startup aims to change that.

One of the largest challenges within cryptocurrency is security. The most impactful application of cryptocurrency thus far is decentralized finance (DeFi). DeFi eliminates intermediaries by allowing people and businesses to conduct financial transactions through blockchain technology as opposed to working through banks or other corporations. However, as a result, people are personally responsible for securing their assets. 

Graphic from the Harpie.io Website

When engaging with cryptocurrency people generally use a trading platform and a wallet. Cryptocurrency trading platforms like Coinbase, Binance, and Crypto.com allow people to buy and sell cryptocurrencies using USD or other cryptocurrencies. However, in order to use crypto, one must transfer some of it into a wallet.

As with conventional currency, crypto wallets are not required in order to use cryptocurrency but they allow individuals to store their tokens in one place, easily retrieve them and send it to other individuals or organizations (i.e. buying non-fungible tokens).  Some of the most popular wallets include Coinbase wallet, Metamask, and Electrum. 

Screenshot of a Metamask Wallet

These wallets are not only password-protected but provide each user with a seed phrase or a series of words generated by one’s cryptocurrency wallet. This phrase, like a password, provides access to the crypto associated with that wallet.

An example seed phrase

The catch is, if an individual gets locked out of their wallet and cannot remember or does not have access to their seed phrase, all of their money will be lost. This is a major problem in the space and people have lost millions of dollars to lost seed phrases and inaccessible wallets. In fact, 20% of all existing Bitcoin tokens have been misplaced. 

Furthermore, in the past, it was already hard enough to secure one’s crypto wallets but now people have several wallets, each with their own unique seed phrase and passcodes making it all the more difficult. In the Fall of 2020, Daniel Chong, a Duke first-year at the time, identified this wallet security problem. 

“Crypto is scaling so quickly but security systems are still the same as they were in 2013.”

Daniel Chong

Having grown up in Las Vegas, Chong was used to fast-paced environments and unique challenges. During high school, Chong started coding as a hobby. 

“I just wanted to build something,” he explained

The first project he built was a website for a research paper he had in his high school psychology class. In 2018 Chong was introduced to solidity, a programming language that’s main purpose is to develop smart contracts for the Ethereum blockchain. If you are unfamiliar with blockchain, please refer to my previous article here

Chong matriculated to Duke during a period of transition, the Fall of 2020. As a result of being sent home due to COVID-19 in the Spring and having to shift to online meetings, many on-campus clubs were struggling. Early on Chong met Manmit Singh, a Junior at the time and the President of the Duke Blockchain Lab.

Even though Chong was only a first-year, he had experience coding in solidity and ended up aiding Singh in revamping Duke Blockchain Lab so students could continue engaging with and learning about blockchain despite the pandemic. Additionally, he ran a virtual course on web3 and solidity development for other club members. 

Despite the fact that Chong was attending classes, involved in clubs, and working part-time, he began talking to his brother Noah who was a senior at Georgia Tech about once again, building something. 

After working on building a security solution for crypto wallets for about a year, Chong and his brother received venture capital funding for their startup Harpie: a simple crypto protection plan that scales with you. 

Chong explained that venture capitalists are very excited about crypto right now, especially back in November of 2021 when crypto was in a bull market and bitcoin was at a market high of 60,000. 

Harpie is a web app that allows users to connect all of their wallets to individualized protection plans. This means that if you have a Harpie protection plan and someone hacks your wallet or you get locked out, you can go to the Harpie web app and transfer your funds from the unusable wallet to a new one.

Additionally, users are able to choose the degree of security their Harpie account has. Users can regain access to their fund via email, phone, or (personal recommendation) 2-factor authentication. Ultimately, for $8.99/month you can protect as many wallets, with any sum of funds, as you want.

Why Harpie is a better backup Solution

After working for just over a year, Harpie launched on February 14th, 2022. The next weekend Chong and his brother headed to ETHDenver, the largest Ethereum conference, to promote Harpie and compete in the Hackathon. For those who are unfamiliar, hackathons are competitive, sprint-like events where computer programmers and others are involved in software development work to build something over a condensed period of time. 

Over 10,000 people participated in the ETHDenver hackathon in person and over 30,000 participated virtually for over $1 million in bounties and prizes, as well as up to $2 million in investment capital.

While the teams had 36 hours to build a project, Chong and his brother managed to build there’s in 4-5 hours. They did this by quickly creating a front-runner bot/flash bot to help people avoid getting hacked by detecting and halting transactions to unauthorized addresses.

The brothers not only successfully built the bot but also placed top 10 in the overall hackathon and had the opportunity to present their project.

While presenting, Chong also received questions from Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum. He explained this as a very “nerve-wracking experience” and added that Buterin asked very technical questions such as what the miners’ extractable value would be.

Chong and his brother (left) onstage with Vitalik Buterin (right) presenting at ETHDenver

In the future, Chong would be open to entering more hackathons but right now is more interested in growing his startup. Currently, Chong is taking time off from school to focus on Harpie and to, ultimately, revolutionize security systems as they relate to online assets.

“Rest easy knowing your crypto is safe.”

Daniel Chong

2019 Duke Grad Founds Cryptocurrency Startup Fei Protocol

As cryptocurrency gains popularity, people continue to question “How and where can these tokens be used?” A November 2021 study by Pew Research reported that 86% of Americans claimed to have heard about cryptocurrency and 16% say they personally have invested in, traded, or otherwise used it

Despite this, there are still very few places where one can make purchases directly using crypto. This means that in order to use cryptocurrency, people must first convert it back to US dollars, which can cost a lot due to transaction fees. Additionally, the exchange rate between any given crypto token and USD changes by the second, resulting in a lack of price stability.

(If you are unfamiliar with cryptocurrency or transaction (gas) fees please refer to my prior article here.)

Duke Alum, Joey Santoro, sensed this gap and saw an opportunity. Santoro graduated from Duke in 2019 with a major in Computer Science. There needed to be a volatility-free token with a stable valuation (i.e. matching the USD), to move between the worlds of crypto and fiat currency. This is also known as a stablecoin. While several were already in existence, Santoro wanted to create a more scalable and decentralized one.

Thus, in December of 2020, Joey founded the Fei Protocol. Fei is a stablecoin in Ethereum native decentralized finance (DeFi). Stablecoins are a type of token that aids in maintaining a liquid market by pegging the token’s value to the USD.  Fei is able to achieve this through various stability mechanisms. Stablecoins can be used for real-life transactions while still benefiting from instant processing and the security of cryptocurrency payments.

When asked why he chose to work in crypto as opposed to Machine Learning (ML) or Artificial Intelligence (AI) Joey explained that it came down to how much impact he could have.

“The barrier for making an avenue of innovation in crypto is so much lower than something like a machine learning. Higher risk, higher reward.”

joey santoro

Santoro did not come to Duke with the plan of founding a web3 DeFi protocol. In fact, when he matriculated he was actually pre-med and originally only took CS 101 because it was a pre-requisite for the Neuroscience major.

However, it did not take long for Joey to realize he wanted to work in the crypto space. In his second semester, he joined the Duke Blockchain Lab and ended up teaching a blockchain course in his junior and senior years.

Because decentralized finance is still so new, no one completely knows what they are doing, which creates considerable opportunities for innovation. Additionally, because the crypto space is decentralized, it is inherently collaborative and community-driven. 

“Being able to write code that’s immediately interoperable with dozens of financial protocols is the coolest thing ever,” Santoro said

Joey argues anyone can become an expert in a particular area in crypto in a couple of months. He said economists and mechanism designers are increasingly moving into the crypto space. 

When the Fei Protocol launched in 2020 it was the height of a bull market for crypto and there was heavy demand for a decentralized stablecoin. While there were several other stablecoins in existence, USDC and tether were the most popular and they were both centralized, meaning they were owned by companies. 

“What so important to me and why I do this is because I want people to be able to do whatever they want with their money.”

JOey santoro

The demand for a decentralized stablecoin created excitement around Feio but also a highly compressed timescale. The Fei Protocol ended up having the largest token launch for an Ethereum DeFi protocol in history, raising $1.25B. However, when it launched,  the peg broke due to issues with the incentive mechanism and bugs in the code.

Santoro recalled the surreal and challenging experience of watching the protocol he spent countless weeks working on fall apart before his eyes. However, his team and investors decided to stick it through and try to salvage what they had built. It took over a month just to fix everything that had gone wrong. In the meantime, people were threatening Santoro and his team. 

While the Fei protocol faced challenges while launching,  Joey and his team were able to adapt, learn from their mistakes, and come back stronger. They recently conducted a multi-billion-dollar merge with Rari Capital and launched Fei version2 (V2).

Additionally, this is the first multi-billion dollar merger in DeFi meaning that the decision to merge was voted on by members of the respective Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs). This is a huge milestone in the world of DeFi and sets a precedent for the potential of decentralized business operations. 

Joey Santoro Presenting at the ETHDenver Convention

Moving forward Joey explained, “I’m obsessed with simplicity now; I still move fast but more carefully.”

Post by Anna Gotskind, Class of 2022

Ethereum: What are Transaction Fees and How are They Determined?

By now most people have heard of Bitcoin, the first form of decentralized cryptocurrency which was created in 2009 and popularized in 2011. However, these novel tokens did not just appear out of thin air, they had to be mined. But what does this mean?

Essentially, there is a finite amount of Bitcoin, 21 million to be exact. Bitcoin miners run complex computer rigs to solve intricate and complicated puzzles in order to confirm groups of bitcoin transactions called blocks. Once a block is mined, the miner is rewarded with bitcoin. 

Bitcoin mining

On 3 January 2009, the bitcoin network came into existence after the founder, Satoshi Nakamoto, mined the genesis block of bitcoin (block number 0), and received a reward of 50 bitcoins. The rewards for Bitcoin mining are reduced by half roughly every four years due to its scarcity. Currently, miners are rewarded 6.25 Bitcoins for every block. Additionally, when a transaction is approved via mining, it is added to a block which is then added to the Bitcoin blockchain. A blockchain is an immutable, decentralized, and transparent computer network that acts as a publicly available ledger. For more information please reference my previous article here.

Not all tokens are mined, however, the most popular or widely used ones, Bitcoin and Ethereum are. Today, we will be focusing on the Ethereum Blockchain using ETH tokens.

Similar to Bitcoin, ETH is also mined by solving complex puzzles in order to confirm and verify blockchain transactions. However, ETH miners are paid in ETH, not bitcoin. In addition to receiving the ETH from mining, miners are also paid through transaction fees called gas

Transaction fees are determined by a Transaction fee mechanism (TFM), a key component of blockchain protocol. However, there has yet to be an empirical study on the real-world impact of TFMs. Recently, a study out of Duke and Peking University evaluated the effect of EIP-1559, the first TFM to abandon the traditional first-price auction paradigm. 

Every transaction or smart contract executed on the Ethereum blockchain requires gas. If you are unfamiliar with smart contracts please reference my previous article here

“Gas is a unit of measurement for the amount of computational effort required to execute a specific on-network operation”

William Zhao ’23, Student researcher

However, the price of gas is constantly changing in response to how many others are trying to make transactions on the blockchain. Gas prices are typically denoted in GWEI or a billionth of an ETH ( 0.000000001 ETH). For context as of February 1st, 2022 at 1:17 ET, ETH is worth $2778.50 USD per token

When an ETH transaction is placed it is not immediately completed and resides in a memory pool or “Mempool.” These are smaller databases of unconfirmed or pending transactions. Prior to the EIP-1559 update, the Ethereum TFM centered around the first-price auction paradigm. 

Mempool

Conceptually, the first-price auction paradigm is fairly simple. Essentially every time a transaction is made there is an accompanying gas bid. Crypto wallets like Metamask or Coinbase Wallet provide suggested gas bids for users but still allow them to alter the bid. This is because transaction verification priority is determined by the miner and thus given to whoever bids the most. Once a transaction is verified it is added to the miner’s block and then to the blockchain. As a result, some users would offer unnecessarily high gas fees in order for their transaction to skip the line and be quickly processed thus creating major delays for others.

There were several problems under this previous TFM including long wait times for verification, extremely high gas and unpredictable prices, as well as inefficiencies around block size and consensus security. Recent research examined the causal effect of EIP-1559 on blockchain transaction fee dynamics, transaction waiting time, and security. They found that while the transaction mechanism became even more complex it did also become more efficient. 

EIP-1559 improves user experience by reducing users’ waiting times, improving fee estimation, and mitigating intra-block difference of gas price paid (which is more important for miners). However, EIP-1559  did not have a large impact on gas fee reduction or consensus security. In addition, they found that when ETH’s price is more volatile, the waiting time is significantly higher. 

Figure 8: Distributions of median waiting time. Users experience a much lower transaction waiting time following EIP-1559.

Ultimately, while user experience improved, scalability issues held the TFM from having a larger effect on important components like gas prices. 

“If you can only hold a certain amount of transactions that’s a hard cap on development, however, high gas prices are a scalability issue not a mechanism design issue.

William Zhao ’23, student researcher

This research paper was recognized by Vitalik Buterin, one of the co-founders of Ethereum.

By: Anna Gotskind,
Class of 2022

Decentralized Finance and the Power of Smart Contracts

When people use apps or services like Netflix, Instagram, Amazon, etc. they sign, or rather virtually accept, digital user agreements. Digital agreements have been around since the 1990s. These agreements are written and enforced by the institutions that create these services and products. However, in certain conditions, these systems fail and these digital or service-level agreements can be breached, causing people to feel robbed. 

A recent example of this is the Robinhood scandal that occurred in mid-2021. Essentially, people came together and all wanted to buy the same stock. However, Robinhood ended up restricting buying, citing issues with volatile stock and regulatory agreements. As a result, they ended up paying $70 million dollars in fines for system outages and misleading customers. And individual customers were left feeling robbed. This was partially the result of centralization and Robinhood having full control over the platform as well as enforcing the digital agreement.

Zak Ayesh Presenting on Chainlink
and Decentralized Smart Contracts

Zak Ayesh, a developer advocate at Chainlink recently came to Duke to talk about decentralized Smart Contracts that could solve many of the problems with current centralized digital agreements and traditional paper contracts as well. 

What makes smart contracts unique is that they programmatically implement a series of if-then rules without the need for a third-party human interaction. While currently these are primarily being used on blockchains, they were actually created by computer scientist Nick Szabo in 1994. Most smart contracts now run on blockchains because it allows them to remain decentralized and transparent. If unfamiliar with blockchain refer to my previous article here. 

Smart contracts are self-executing contracts with the terms of the agreement being directly written into computer code.

Zak Ayesh

There are several benefits to decentralized contracts. The first is transparency. Because every action on a blockchain is recorded and publicly available, the enforcement of smart contracts is unavoidably built-in. Next is trust minimization and guaranteed execution. With smart contracts, there is reduced counterparty risk — that’s the probability one party involved in a transaction or agreement might default on its contractual obligation because neither party has control of the agreement’s execution or enforcement. Lastly, they are more efficient due to automation. Operating on blockchains allows for cheaper and more frictionless transactions than traditional alternatives. For instance, the complexities of cross-border remittances involving multiple jurisdictions and sets of legal compliances can be simplified through coded automation in smart contracts.

Dr. Campbell Harvey, a J. Paul Sticht Professor of International Business at Fuqua, has done considerable research on smart contracts as well, culminating in the publication of a book, DeFi and the Future of Finance which was released in the fall of 2021.

In the book, Dr. Harvey explores the role smart contracts play in decentralized finance and how Ethereum and other smart contract platforms give rise to the ability for decentralized application or dApp. Additionally, smart contracts can only exist as long as the chain or platform they live on exists. However, because these platforms are decentralized, they remove the need for a third party to mediate the agreement. Harvey quickly realized how beneficial this could be in finance, specifically decentralized finance or DeFi where third-party companies, like banks, mediate agreements at a high price.  

“Because it costs no more at an organization level to provide services to a customer with $100 or $100 million in assets, DeFi proponents believe that all meaningful financial infrastructure will be replaced by smart contracts which can provide more value to a larger group of users,” Harvey explains in the book

Beyond improving efficiency, this also creates greater accessibility to financial services. Smart contracts provide a foundation for DeFi by eliminating the middleman through publicly traceable coded agreements. However, the transition will not be completely seamless and Harvey also investigates the risks associated with smart contracts and advancements that need to be made for them to be fully scalable.

Ultimately, there is a smart contract connectivity problem. Essentially, smart contracts are unable to connect with external systems, data feeds, application programming interfaces (APIs), existing payment systems, or any other off-chain resource on their own. This is something called the Oracle Problem which Chainlink is looking to solve.

Harvey explains that when a smart contract is facilitating an exchange between two tokens, it determines the price by comparing exchange rates with another similar contract on the same chain. The other smart contract is therefore acting as a price oracle, meaning it is providing external price information. However, there are many opportunities to exploit this such as purchasing large amounts on one oracle exchange in order to alter the price and then go on to purchase even more on a different exchange in the opposite direction. This allows for capitalization on price movement by manipulating the information the oracle communicates to other smart contracts or exchanges. 

That being said, smart contracts are being used heavily, and Pratt senior Manmit Singh has been developing them since his freshman year along with some of his peers in the Duke Blockchain Lab. One of his most exciting projects involved developing smart contracts for cryptocurrency-based energy trading on the Ethereum Virtual Machine allowing for a more seamless way to develop energy units.

One example of how this could be used outside of the crypto world is insurance. Currently, when people get into a car accident it takes months or even a year to evaluate the accident and release compensation. In the future, there could be sensors placed on cars connected to smart contracts that immediately evaluate the damage and payout.

Decentralization allows us to avoid using intermediaries and simply connect people to people or people to information as opposed to first connecting people to institutions that can then connect them to something else. This also allows for fault tolerance: if one blockchain goes down, the entire system does not go down with it. Additionally, because there is no central source controlling the system, it is very difficult to gain control of thus protecting against attack resistance and collusion resistance. While risks like the oracle problem need to be further explored, the world and importance of DeFi, as well as smart contracts, is only growing.

And as Ayesh put it, “This is the future.”

Post by Anna Gotskind, Class of 2022

Nobel Laureate Dr. Jennifer Doudna and Groundbreaking Applications of CRISPR

In 2011, Dr. Jennifer Doudna began studying an enzyme called Cas9. Little did she know, in 2020 she would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Emmanuelle Charpentier for discovering the powerful gene-editing tool, CRISPR-Cas9. Today, Doudna is a decorated researcher, the Li Ka Shing Chancellors Chair, a Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Molecular as well as Cell Biology at the University of California Berkeley, and the founder of the Innovative Genomics Institute.

Doudna was also this year’s speaker for the MEDx Distinguished Lecture in October where she delivered presented on “CRISPR: Rewriting DNA and the Future of Humanity.”

“CRISPR is a system that originated in bacteria as an adaptive immune system” Doudna explained.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna holding the Nobel Prize in Chemistry

When bacterial cells are infected by viruses those viruses inject their genetic material into the cell. This discovery, a couple decades ago, was the first indication that there may be ways to apply bacteria’s ability to acquire genetic information from viruses.

CRISPR itself was discovered in 1987 and stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.” Doudna was initially studying RNA when she discovered Cas-9, a bacterial RNA-guided endonuclease and one of the enzymes produced by the CRISPR system. In 2012, Doudna and her colleagues found that Cas9 used base pairing to locate and splice target DNAs when combined with a guide RNA.

Essentially, they designed guide RNA to target specific cells. If those cells had a CRISPR system encoded in their genome, the cell is able to make an RNA copy of the CRISPR locus. Those RNA molecules are then processed into units that each include a sequence derived from a virus and then assemble with proteins. This RNA protein then looks for DNA sequences that match the sequence in the RNA guide. Once a match occurs, Cas9 is able to bind to and cut the DNA, leading to the destruction of the viral genome. The cutting of DNA then triggers DNA repair allowing gene editing to occur.

“This system has been harnessed as a technology for genome editing because of the ability of these proteins, these CRISPR Cas-p proteins, to be programmed by RNA molecules to cut any desired DNA sequence,” Doudna said.

Jennifer Doudna holding a Model of CRISPR-cas9

While continuing to conduct research, Doudna has also been focused on applying CRISPR in agriculture and medicine. For agriculture, researchers are looking to make changes to the genomes of plants in order to improve drought resistance and crop protection. 

CRISPR-cas9 is also being applied in many clinical settings. In fact, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Doudna along with several colleagues organized a five-lab consortium including the labs of Dan Fletcher, Patrick Hsu, Melanie Ott, and David Savage. The focus was on developing the Cas13 system to detect COVID-19. Cas13 is a class of proteins, that are RNA guided, RNA targeting, CRISPR enzymes. This research was initially done by one of Doudna’s former graduate students, Alexandra East-Seletsky. They discovered that if the reporter RNA is is paired with enzymes that have a quenched fluorophore pair on the ends, when the target is activated, the reporter is cleaved and a fluorescent signal is released. 

One study out of the Melanie Ott group demonstrated that Cas13 can be used to detect viral RNA. They are hoping to apply this as a point-of-care diagnostic by using a detector as well as a microfluidic chip which would allow for the conduction of these chemical reactions in much smaller volumes that can then be read out by a laser. Currently, the detection limit is similar to what one can get with a PCR reaction however it is significantly easier to run.

Graphical Abstract of Cas13 Research by the Melanie Ott lab

“And this is again, not fantasy, we’ve actually had just fabricated devices that will be sitting on a benchtop, and are able to use fabricated chips that will allow us to run the Cas13 chemistry with either nasal swab samples or saliva samples for detection of the virus,” Doudna added.

Another exciting development is the use of genome editing in somatic cells. This involves making changes in the cells of an individual as opposed to the germline. One example is sickle cell disease which is caused by a single base pair defect in a gene. Soon, clinicians will be able to target and correct this defect at the source of the mutation alleviating people from this devastating illness. Currently, there are multiple ongoing clinical trials including one at the Innovative Genomics Institute run by Doudna. In fact, one patient, Victoria Gray, has already been treated for her sickle cell disease using CRISPR.

Victoria Gray being treated for Sickle Cell Anemia
Meredith Rizzo/NPR

“The results of these trials are incredibly exciting and encouraging to all of us in the field, with the knowledge that this technology is being deployed to have a positive impact on patient’s lives,” Doudna said.

 Another important advancement was made last summer involving the use of CRISPR-based therapy to treat ATR, a rare genetic disease that primarily affects the liver. This is also the first time CRISPR molecules will be delivered in vivo.

In just 10 years CRISPR-cas9 has gone from an exciting discovery to being applied in several medical and agricultural settings. 

“This powerful technology enables scientists to change DNA with precision only dreamed of a few years ago,” said MEDx director Geoffrey Ginsburg, a Professor of Medicine at Duke. “Labs worldwide have redirected the course of research programs to incorporate this new tool, creating a CRISPR revolution with huge implications across biology and medicine.”

Examples of further CRISPR-Cas9 research can also be found in the Charles Gersbach lab here at Duke. 

By Anna Gotskind, Class of 2022

The Duke Blockchain Lab: Disrupting and Redefining Finance

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

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

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

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

Manmit SIngh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manmit Singh
By: Anna Gotskind

Using Data Science for Early Detection of Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder can be detected as early as six to twelve months old and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all children be screened between twelve and eighteen months of age.

But most diagnoses happen after the age of 4, and later detection makes it more difficult and expensive to treat.

One in 40 children is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Duke currently serves about 3,000 ASD patients per year. To improve care for patients with ASD, Duke researchers have been working to develop a data science approach to early detection.

Geraldine Dawson, the William Cleland Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, and Dr. Matthew Engelhard, a Conners Fellow in Digital Health in Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, recently presented on the advances being made to improve ASD detection and better understand symptoms.

The earlier ASD is detected, the easier and less expensive it is to treat. Children with ASD face challenges in learning and social environments.

ASD differs widely from case to case, however. For most people, ASD makes it difficult to navigate the social world, and those with the diagnosis often struggle to understand facial expressions, maintain eye contact, and develop strong peer relations.

However, ASD also has many positive traits associated with it and autistic children often show unique skills and talents. Receiving a diagnosis is important for those with ASD so that they can receive learning accommodations and ensure that their environment helps promote growth. 

Because early detection is so helpful researchers began to ask:

“Can digital behavioral assessments improve our ability to screen for neurodevelopmental disorders and monitor treatment outcomes?”

Dr. geraldine DawsoN

The current approach for ASD detection is questionnaires given to parents. However, there are many issues in this method of detection such as literacy and language barriers as well as requiring caregivers to have some knowledge of child development. Recent studies have demonstrated that digital assessments could potentially address these challenges by allowing for direct observation of the child’s behavior as well as the ability to capture the dynamic nature of behavior, and collect more data surrounding autism.

“Our goal is to reduce disparities in access to screening and enable earlier detection of ASD by developing digital behavioral screening tools that are scalable, feasible, and more accurate than current paper-and-pencil questionnaires that are standard of care.”

Dr. Geraldine Dawson

Guillermo Sapiro, a James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and his team have developed an app to do just this.

On the app, videos are shown to the child on an iPad or iPhone that prompt the child’s reaction through various stimuli. These are the same games and stimuli typically used in ASD diagnostic evaluations in the clinic. As they watch and interact, the child’s behavior is measured with the iPhone/iPad’s selfie camera. Some behavioral symptoms can be detected as early as six months of age are, such as: not paying as much attention to people, reduced affective expression, early motor differences, and failure to orient to name.

In the proof-of-concept study, computers were programmed to detect a child’s response to hearing their name called. The child’s name was called out by the examiner three times while movies were shown. Toddlers with ASD demonstrated about a second of latency in their responses. 

Another study used gaze monitoring on an iPhone. Nearly a thousand toddlers were presented with a split screen where a person was on one side of the screen and toys were on the other. Typical toddlers shifted their gaze between the person and toy, whereas the autistic toddlers focused more on the toys. Forty of the toddlers involved in the study received an ASD diagnosis. Using eye gaze, researchers were also able to look at how toddlers responded to speech sounds as well as to observe early motor differences because toddlers with ASD frequently show postural sway (a type of head movement).

“The idea behind the app is to begin to combine all of these behaviors to develop a much more robust ASD algorithm. We do believe no one feature will allow us to detect ASD in developing children because there is so much variation”

DR. GERALDINE DAWSON

The app has multiple features and will allow ASD detection to be done in the home. Duke researchers are now one step away from launching an at-home study. Other benefits of this method include the ability to observe over time with parents collecting data once a month. In the future, this could be used in a treatment study to see if symptoms are improving.

Duke’s ASD researchers are also working to integrate information from the app with electronic health records (EHR) to see if information collected from routine medical care before age 1 can help with detection.

Post by Anna Gotskind

Meet a Duke Senior at the Intersection Of Computation, Neuroscience and T-Pain

As Daniel Sprague ‘21 prepares to graduate from Duke this Spring with a double major in Computer Science and Neuroscience, I had the opportunity to interview him on his undergraduate research experience. In his final semester, Sprague reflects on what he accomplished and learned in the three research labs he was a part of over his four years at Duke.

Outside of the lab, Sprague is also active in the arts community at Duke. He has been a member of Hoof ‘n’ Horn since his freshman year and has performed in four student-run musical theater productions. He is also a part of Speak of the Devil, one of Duke’s acapella groups that he was the president of during his Junior year. Recently, a video they uploaded more than two years ago has picked up speed and acquired over 150,000 views on YouTube. I think it’s fair to say Sprague is even more than a triple threat.

Sprague was interested in neuroscience and biology before he came to Duke and knew he wanted to participate in undergraduate research when he arrived. His first year, planning on pursuing pre-med, he joined Rima Fathi Kaddurah-Daouk’s lab where he worked with metabolomics, the large-scale study of small molecules within cells, biofluids, tissues, or organisms as it relates to neuropsychiatric disorders. While he learned a lot and enjoyed working in this lab, Sprague was eager to explore more.

The summer after his first year, Sprague was accepted to the Huang Fellows Program run by Duke’s Science & Society initiative. 

Sprague described their focus as, “The way that research, science, communication, and medicine interact with social issues and ethics.”

As a part of the program, Sprague was matched and placed in Ornit Chiba-Falek’s lab. There he conducted work in genomics and neuroscience, centered around neurodegenerative diseases, specifically, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. His job involved processing mouse brains to extract neurons for genomic sequencing. From there, the lab would conduct genome-wide association studies to correlate specific human or animal genotypes with genetic markers.

“We were trying to identify SNPs (Single-nucleotide polymorphism) which are single base pair variations in a genome that correlated with Alzheimer’s” Sprague explained

Along with working in a lab, Sprague also attended research seminars, learned about how science publishing works, and participated in a  science symposium at the culmination of the summer experience.

Daniel Sprague presents his research at Duke Science and Society’s Huang Fellows Program Poster Session

“Research is a slow iterative process and it rarely ever works how you expect it to.”

Daniel sprague

Sprague continued working in the Chiba-Falek lab through his sophomore year and contributed to the publication of two research papers: Shared genetic etiology underlying Alzheimer’s disease and major depressive disorder and Bioinformatics strategy to advance the interpretation of Alzheimer’s disease GWAS discoveries: The roads from association to causation. However, partway through the year, he realized he missed math and computational thinking. He began taking more math and computer science classes. After learning more, he realized he really wanted to find a lab doing research at the intersection of computation, math, and neuroscience.

Junior year brought Sprague to the John Pearson’s Lab where they build modeling and analysis tools for brain data.

He also began taking courses in machine learning which he brought into his lab work. His role involved working on the lab’s code base and aiding in the development of a software system for analyzing the brain. He was specifically looking at calcium imaging data. Sprague explained that there are a lot of different ways to do neuroimaging and visualize brain cell function. His work involved using fluorescent calcium.

“When brain cells spike, they release a fluorescent calcium trace that we can visualize with a camera to detect brian cell function with a high degree of temporal and spatial specificity,” Sprague said. “This allows us to accurately detect brain cell function on a millisecond and single cell scale.”

In many neuroscience studies, a stimulus is presented to an organism and the response is observed. The Pearson lab wants to be able to dynamically adjust which stimulus they present based on the intermediary results during the experiment.

“A big limitation in neuroscience research is it just has an absurd amount of data, even for a very small organism,” Sprague said. “Even a couple thousand brain cells will provide so much data that it can’t be visualized or analyzed quick enough to adjust the experiment in ways that would improve it.”

As a result of this limitation, they are trying to adapt conventional computational neuroscience methods to be used in an “online fashion,” which means working with the data as it comes in. Ultimately, they are developing methods to analyze data that traditionally would take hours due to computational time and trying to condense it to a millisecond.

“There are a lot of similar problems that computer scientists work on, but they focus on theoretical analyses of types of functions and how mathematical functions work. What’s cool about this is that it’s very applied with the constraints of a biological system and also requires knowledge of multiple disciplines.”

daniel sprague

Sprague will continue to apply these skills as he begins working next year as an associate consultant at Bain & Company in San Francisco. He is very interested in the connection between science, tech, and society.

Additionally, he is hoping to learn more about how artificial intelligence and machine learning are used in industry as well as their future directions, ethical dilemmas, and legal considerations. Consulting is becoming an increasingly data-driven industry and Sprague hopes to continue developing his domain knowledge and work with these ideas in an applied setting.

As Sprague prepares to leave Duke he reflects on his time here and the research he has had the opportunity to participate in. 

“One thing I’m grateful for is having the chance to have different experiences but still settle into one lab for two years. Don’t be afraid to get involved early, and don’t feel like you have to stay in the same lab for four years.”

daniel Sprague

Post by Anna Gotskind

The SolarWinds Attack and the Future of Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity is the protection of computer systems and networks in order to prevent theft of or damage to their hardware, software, or electronic data. While cybersecurity has been around since the 1970s, its importance and relevance in mainstream media as well as politics is growing as an increased amount of information is stored electronically. In 1986, approximately 1% of the world’s information was stored in a digital format; by 2006, just twenty years later, this had increased to 94%.

Cyber Hacking has also become more prominent with the advent of the Digital Revolution and the start of the Information Era which began in the 1980s and rapidly grew in the early 2000s. It became an effective political form of attack to acquire confidential information from foreign countries. 

In mid-December of 2020, it was revealed that several U.S. companies and even government agencies were victims of a cyberattack that began in September of 2019. 

The Sanford School of Public Policy hosted a leading cybersecurity reporter Sean Lyngaas to lead a discussion on the national security implications of the SolarWinds hack with Sanford Professor David Hoffman as well as Visiting Scholar and Journalist Bob Sullivan. Lyngaas graduated from Duke in 2007 and majored in Public Policy at the Sanford School. 

Lyngaas did not have a direct route into cybersecurity journalism. After completing his Masters in International Relations from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University he moved to Washington D.C. to pursue a career as a policy analyst. However, at night when he was not applying for jobs he began pitching stories to trade journals. Despite not being a “super technical guy” Lyngaas ended up becoming passionate about cybersecurity and reporting on the increasing amounts of news surrounding the growing topic. Since 2012 Lyngaas has done extensive reporting on cybersecurity breaches and recently has published several detailed reports on the SolarWinds incident. 

Sean Lyngaas

The SolarWinds attack is considered one of the most impactful cybersecurity events in history as a result of its intricacy and the number of government and private sector victims. Lyngaas explained that most people had not heard of SolarWinds until recently, but the company nevertheless, provides software to a multitude of fortune 500 companies and government agencies. One of the software products they sell is Orion, an IT performance monitoring platform that helps businesses manage and optimize their IT infrastructure. The Hackers infiltrated Orion’s update software and over several months sent out malicious updates to 18,000 companies and government agencies. Among the victims of this espionage campaign were the U.S. Justice Department and Microsoft. As a result of the campaign, countless email accounts were infiltrated and hacked.

“A perfect example of someone robbing a bank by knocking out the security guard and putting on his outfit to have access.” 

Bob Sullivan

Sullivan added that this hack is particularly concerning because the target was personal information whereas previous large-scale hacks have been centered around breaching data. Additionally, SolarWind’s core business is not cybersecurity, however, they work with and provide software to many cybersecurity companies. The attack was revealed by FireEye, a cybersecurity company that announced they had been breached.

“FireEye got breached and they are the ones usually investigating the breaches”

Sean lyngaas

This situation has prompted both those involved in the cybersecurity industry as well as the public to reconsider the scope of cyberhacking and what can be done to prevent it.

“Computer spying by nation states has been going on for decades but we talk about it more openly now.” Lyngass stated. 

Lyngaas added that the public is now expecting more transparency especially if there are threats to their information. He feels we need to have better standards for companies involved in cyber security. Solarwinds arguably was not using cybersecurity best practices and had recently made price cuts which may have contributed to their vulnerability. Hoffman explained that SolarWinds had been using an easy-to-guess password to their internal systems which allowed hackers access to the software update as well as the ability to sign a digital signature. 

“We are not going to prevent these breaches; we are not going to prevent the Russians from cyber espionage.” Lyngaas stated

However, he believes by using best practices we can uncover these breaches earlier and react in a timely manner to reduce damage. Additionally, he thinks there needs to be a shift in government spending in terms of the balance between cyber defense and offense. Historically, there has been a lack of transparency in government cyber spending, however, it is known that there has been more spent on offense in the last several years.

Changes are starting to be made in the cybersecurity landscape that hopefully should aid in reducing attacks or at least the severity of their impacts. California recently created a law centered around publicizing breaches which will increase transparency. The panelists added that the increasing amount of news and information available to the public about cybersecurity is aiding efforts to understand and prevent it. President Biden was openly speaking about cybersecurity in relation to protecting the election from hackers and continues to consider it an urgent issue as it is crucial in order to protect confidential U.S. information. 

As Lyngaas explained, it is practically impossible to completely prevent cyber attacks, however, through increasing transparency and using best practices, incidents like the SolarWinds hack will hopefully not have effects of the same scale again.

Post by Anna Gotskind

Claire Engstrom, a Student Researcher Working to Treat Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy by Optimizing CRISPr-cas9

Meet Claire Engstrom, a Senior from Pasadena California. Claire is a Biology major who works in the Gersbach Lab at Duke. 

Claire first got involved with on-campus research through her pre-orientation program, PSearch that introduces incoming first-years to undergraduate research. Following her experience in PSearch, Claire got her first work-study research position in the Tung Lab where she worked closely with Jenny Tung, an Associate Professor in the Departments of Evolutionary Anthropology and Biology at Duke and a Faculty Associate of the Duke University Population Research Institute. 

In the Tung Lab, Claire’s research focused on how DNA methylation is passed through generations. Essentially looking at the inheritance of DNA whose methylation was impacted by environmental factors and how that affects future generations. 

Duke has research opportunities available in all disciplines as well as across departments. Approximately 53% of undergraduates graduate with research experience. Not only can students participate in groundbreaking research, but they can receive funding from the university as well to support the work they are doing.

Within the Biology department, there is a fellowship called B-SURF, the Biological Sciences Undergraduate Research Fellowship, an 8-week summer research program for rising sophomores. Claire applied for and was accepted to the fellowship and placed in one of Duke’s biomedical science laboratories. She also received a $4,000 stipend for her summer research.

Claire was placed in Charles Gersbach’s Lab focused on researching Genome Editing for Gene and Cell Therapy. Dr, Gersbach is a Rooney Family Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering and has conducted groundbreaking work in genome editing.

Members of the Gersbach Lab in Fall 2019

Gersbach is doing research in several different domains of biomedical engineering. Claire’s project focuses on using CRISPR-Cas9, a technology that allows scientists to change an organism’s DNA using clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9. faster, cheaper, more accurate, and more efficient than other existing genome editing methods. 

Prior to joining his lab, Claire had already heard a lot about Gersbach in her course Biology 201 as well as through reading his papers. The project she would spend the next two and a half years working on focused on using and optimizing CRISPR-Cas9 to treat Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy and lessen the severity of the symptoms. 

Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy is a muscle wasting disease that affects one in every five thousand male births.

“People are diagnosed when they are around five and then they lose the ability to walk and their heart can’t pump blood because of the lack of muscles.” Claire explained.  

“CRISPR-based genome editing restores dystrophin expression in mouse models of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Cross-sections of muscle tissue where the dystrophin protein has been labeled green, including normal, healthy tissue (left), tissue from a mouse model of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (middle), and tissue from the same mouse model that has been treated with the CRISPR gene editing system (right). Nelson et al., Science (2016)”

Thus, those affected often die in early adulthood despite current advances in cardiovascular and respiratory treatments. Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy generally occurs as a result of a frameshift mutation of the dystrophin gene. As a result, one’s muscles can no longer connect to anything making it nearly impossible to contract and function properly. In the Gersbach lab they are trying to treat the mutation by using CRISPR-Cas9 to remove an exon or coding region of the gene in order to shift the reading frame back into its normal place. 

This shift produces a less severe phenotype that lessens the effects of Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy. The result will significantly improve the quality of life and life spans for affected patients. 

Claire will be continuing her work in the Gersbach lab full time in Spring 2021 as she graduated early, with distinction in the Fall. Her thesis on the work she did in the Gersbach lab was recently approved and her results will be published in a larger paper in the future. After this year she plans to take a gap year an then return to California to hopefully attend grad school and pursue a Ph.D. in Biology.

By Anna Gotskind

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