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

Author: Cydney Livingston Page 1 of 4

Experts Unpack the Space Debris Challenge Just Before an “Irresponsible” Russian Missile Launch

Sticky post

Russia sucessfully tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile on Monday, creating a debris field of more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris — space junk — whizzing around the planet. The crew aboard the International Space Station was ordered into their spacesuits to help them survive if one of the shards hit their home.

The Russian test, which has been strongly condemned by US officials, has created extreme hazards for satellites. US Space Command Commander General James Dickinson stated that “Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations.”

You might be wondering, What’s the big deal?

Just last Friday on November 12th, a group of experts met with the Duke community to discuss the threats to space – an environment we often forget about – and why space junk poses a large challenge for the 21st century.

Benjamin Schmitt PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, facilitated the group conversation, which featured Hugh Lewis PhD, Professor of Astronautics and Head of the Astronautics Research Group at the University of Southampton. Schmitt stated that for the last two weeks, people around the world have paused to look up at the climate with the proceedings of COP26, but they “should also tilt their heads back a bit further” and consider the problem of space junk.

The challenge of space debris requires technical and diplomatic solutions, which are often complex. This has been effectively demonstrated by the Russian launch and resultant global reactions to the “irresponsibility” of the maneuver.

Schmitt and Lewis were joined by Brit Lundgren PhD, Laura Newburgh PhD, and W. Robert Pearson JD. Lundgren is an Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Newburgh is an Assistant Professor of Physics at Yale University, and Pearson is a retired U.S. Ambassador and current Duke University Center for International and Global Studies Fellow.

Space experts engaged in Friday’s conversation

“The space debris problem is a wicked problem,” Lewis said. And the problem is this: According to the European Space Agency, there are over 36,500 objects larger than 10cm, 1,000,000 objects over 1cm, and more than one-third of a billion objects over 1mm in size in orbit around the Earth. These numbers, though bewilderingly large, are posed to expand.

As all this junk collides with itself, there are more and more fragments and particles in space. Lewis said that unlike climate change, there is not a “tipping point.” There will not be a warning or any sudden event that pushes us into the exponential growth phase – it will just, sort of, happen.

These pieces of debris pose substantial risks to the space systems that our modern societies have come to rely on, like piloting and navigation, communication, and many forms of entertainment like television. “Without those services, all of us, the entire planet, would suffer,” Lewis said.

A visualization of the space debris currently rotating around Earth.

But this issue of space debris likely feels entirely disconnected and irrelevant for most of the world’s population. “For us down here on Earth, we are really not aware of this growing problem … and we are really not able to connect to it,” Lewis said. “Unless we make that human connection, it’s not something we would be able to address.”

The panelists all agreed that making the connections between space debris and the current functioning of our globe is a critical step to getting the public to engage with the space debris challenge.

There are also other important reasons to care about space debris. Lundgren pointed out that there has already been a global 10% increase in brightness relative to the natural, dark sky because of light-reflecting space debris. This is the kind of light pollution that you cannot escape, Lundgren stated, “You can’t just drive away like with city pollution.” For communities of people, like the Indigenous, this is also having severe impact on the cultural ways in which they use nighttime skies.

Newburgh’s scientific research uses a particular satellite frequency for data collection. This wavelength was just sold to a communication company, meaning that eventually, she will no longer be able to do her work. The frequencies used for satellites are limited, and thus an extremely valuable and expensive, monopolizable commodity. Scientists like Newburgh are gravely concerned about the protection of the future of their work and worried that we might “lose out on science.”

Because of the initiatives like Starlink, a satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX, Newburgh said that space has begun to feel like the “Wild West” with no rules or regulation. “It feels like you could just do anything.”

This was a very important tenet of the discussion: “[Space debris] is not just a technical problem we have to solve, but a social one as well.” While technical solutions are needed to constrain the exponential growth of space debris, the even bigger challenge seems to lie in answering questions like “Who gets to use the remaining capacity in lowest orbit and how do we decide?” that Lewis asked. “Lots of companies, governments, and so on want to use space,” Lewis said.

Starlink satellites are changing to night sky. The company’s satellites can be seen traveling through space.

Ambassador Pearson said that this issue could be resolved by starting with a shared interest in the space debris issue and working outwards to points of change that are important across nations. The result would not ultimately be the full wish of any singular entity. Pearson also emphasized the pertinence of action: “It’s one thing to talk about what ought to be done and to talk about what we will do.”

While Pearson says that he does not believe there is a way to avoid national competition in space, it is essential to develop rules to mitigate and govern international interactions in space. This is likely to be a long process and has been on the minds of experts for decades already. But as Pearson reminded the audience it took almost 40 years to “get the ball rolling on climate change” and 10 years for the first nuclear disarmament.

The conversation ultimately kept returning to the need to engage the public and the impact that unconstrained space debris would have on their lives. Pearson said it is important to let the public know that the access to health, technology, communications, and many facets of society people had come to expect in their lives, would be severely impacted by damage to our space infrastructure.

“Whenever you think about the environment down here that we all occupy, that we are all connected to, we have to also think about the environment in space,” Lewis said.

He ended the conversation with a quote from the science fiction movie, Terminator 2: There is no fate but what we make for ourselves. This fate is dependent on cooperation between scientists, diplomats, regulatory and technical experts, and the public around the world.

Post by Cydney Livingston, Class of 2022

Law Tech Demo Roundup, Using Technology to Address Gaps in Access to Justice

If innovative technology solutions are the key to addressing gaps in our justice system, Duke Law Tech Lab (DLTL) is a place where these solutions come to life.

Friday, October 22nd, three teams presented on their work, supported by DLTL, to change the way that legal services are delivered. And the presentation had more at stake than just educating the attendees. Real cash prizes were on the line – voted on by a panel of judges and even audience members – to provide even more funding for these startups.

Jeff Ward introduces the 2021 Law Tech Legal Demo Judges.

The three teams were accepted out of dozens of applications to work with the DLTL, according to host Jeff Ward (JD), Director of Duke’s Center on Law and Technology and Clinical Professor of Law. The Lab looks for early-stage companies striving to increase access to legal solutions to offer monetary support, but the missions of the DLTL initiative go far beyond that. DLTL is building a community for creative entrepreneurs in the legal tech space, connecting start-ups with valuable partners and mentors, and fostering a space of growth through tailored resources and support.

First up at the 2021 Law Tech Lab Demo Day was Creators’ Legal. “The traditional legal solutions simply don’t work for the modern content creator,” said Eric Farber, founder and CEO of Creators’ Legal. Farber’s company is seeking to help what is now the second-fastest sector of the world economy: Content creators. Content creators are people who generate revenue by sponsorships and advertising, often through social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok. This market is huge and expanding, but “completely underserved” with legal solutions, said Farber.

Creators’ Legal CEO and Founder, Eric Farber, explains how the company works to support modern content creators.

Because content creators can go from production to distribution within just a few hours or less, traditional entertainment legal that is filled with time-consuming, expensive, and unresponsive lawyers is not a viable option.

Farber says that “Industry Standard Agreements and deals are hidden behind the doors of [this] traditional legal.” By creating a platform that has easy-to-use contract templates, eSignatures, and a digital briefcase for storing files offered on a by-contract or subscription-basis, Creators Legal wants to be a company that serves the gaps left for content creators.

Next up was Justice Innovations, represented by its CEO, Sasha Davenport. Davenport and Justice Innovations want to rearrange the workflow associated with the process that happens from the time a crime takes place to the person who has been arrested for the case makes their initial appearance in court.

“This [at the initial appearance] is where things get really interesting for me,” said Davenport because about 40% of cases are dropped for no-actions. This leads to a huge number of wasted time, effort, budgets, and more. By creating and integrating a software system that they are dubbing Vet-IT, the company wants to increase data-sharing across agencies that should be on the same page with each other but often are not.

Sasha Davenport, CEO, explains how Vet-IT works through different steps from initial crime reporting to someone’s first appearance in court.

Through the data-sharing platform, information would be entered about a case from the first moments of crime investigation to help decide if this is a charge that would even end up being prosecuted or not. The benefits, according to Davenport, including filtering out bad cases, deflecting more people from entering the carceral system, decreasing jail populations, expediting redirection for individuals in need to mental health interventions, and, potentially, improved community-police trust. Justice Innovations were inspired to pursue this idea because of the great success that Harris County Texas has had in producing few no-action cases. Harris County achieved this by a process of phone-trees across agencies for the last 50 years.

Founder and Executive Director of SAEF Legal Aid, Eamonn Keenan, explains the company’s marketing strategy of community outreach.

Last, but not least, was SAEF Legal Aid. Eamonn Keenan, company Founder and Executive Director, laid out the team’s legal tech solution. There is a systematic problem of finding the legal support that one needs before it is too late, bringing with it immense challenges and large expenditures of time. Keenan became aware of this issue while working at a legal aid help desk. SAEF Legal Aid’s solution is to leverage practical tech to more accurately diagnose user’s legal problems and facilitate access to free or affordable legal solutions via reliable referrals and strategic partnerships.

In doing this work, the team hopes to help low-income families more immediately, starting with family law services and expanding out. A large part of their solution also includes building partnerships with “word-of-mouth marketing” to embed the service in high-need communities. “People without internet access might need legal help the most,” Keenan said. SAEF Legal Aid hopes to cut through the lack of staffing for legal aid advice desks and bypass the waiting game of larger legal aid providers who often have high turn-away rates and long waiting periods for attorney follow up to resolve the barrier that intake causes in gaining access to legal help.

At the end of the presentation, Justice Innovations walked away with the Audience Favorite prize and SAEF Legal Aid took the Grand Prize. Regardless of prizes, these three teams will inevitably continue to be part of the solution to gaps in justice as they carry their work forward.

Post by Cydney Livingston

The Life of a Biology Ph.D. Student, Clara Howell

Clara Howell and I meet to chat on a lovely October afternoon under the trees of the Bryan Center Plaza. In my final Fall at Duke as an undergraduate, I am happy to connect with Clara, a third-year PhD student in the biology department. We meet on the auspices that I want to learn more about her trek through academia and her current work in the Nowicki lab for this very profile piece. “I’ve never been written about before,” Clara says to me. I suspect that, though most grad students’ work is totally cool, most of them never have.

Clara Howell, Ph.D. student, conducting field work.

Clara talks with her hands as she lays out her current work for me. Right now, she is studying sexual selection and infection in different bird species. Duke biology professor Steve Nowicki, one of Clara’s advisors, has done a lot of work on honesty in communication systems between animals. Most species, Clara tells me, rely on honest signals for mate choice, because it benefits females to be able to discern between low- and high-quality mates, and it benefits high quality males to be able to advertise their quality. In general, animal signals should be reliable. Clara’s other advisor, biology professor and chair of evolutionary anthropology Susan Alberts, specializes in life history trade-offs of signaling: Animals only have so many resources and they must make choices about how to use them. A male bird, that is, for example, fighting an infection, cannot devote as many resources to sexual signaling as an uninfected male.

“But,” Clara says, with an increasingly bright smile on her face, “There is an interesting period of time right after an animal is exposed to a potential pathogen where it’s not immediately clear if the bird’s sexual signals will be honest. This is because it could be most advantageous for animals – especially males – to continue devoting every resource possible for sexual signaling, even if it means ignoring a pathogen that will eventually kill them.”

The punchline is, the male swamp sparrows and zebra finches that Clara studies might benefit from “lying” about being sick. By ignoring an arising infection and devoting one’s energy to maintaining strong sexual signaling, these male birds may be tricking females into thinking they are perfectly healthy mates with no sickness in sight. So far, Clara has been recording the songs of male birds following an injection of bacterial cell walls to stimulate their immune response. “The real kicker will be when I test females and see how and if they discern between the songs of sick and healthy males.”

“When we started to social distance at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, before any of us knew how long this would last, I wondered whether other animals do the same thing,” Clara said. When COVID-19 put a pause to Clara’s original work, she found inspiration in the pandemic itself to think about cues of sickness in other animal species besides our own – an idea she saw other scientists starting to buzz about.

Before grad school, Clara studied neuroscience and English at Tulane University in New Orleans. She worked in an evolutionary biology lab with former Duke Ph.D. Elizabeth Derryberry beginning in sophomore year and did her honor’s thesis in Derryberry’s lab on connections between novel foraging tasks and mate preferences in zebra finches. And Clara loved her advisor so much that she decided to follow Derryberry to the University of Tennessee as a grad student in the same year she earned her bachelor’s degree.

“What about your English major?” I asked Clara. “I was a very nerdy, book-ish child,” she replied, “I wanted to read more in college.” Her background in English has turned out to be quite useful for her work in the sciences. “Having really great scientific ideas and not being able to tell people about them is pretty useless,” she said with a short laugh. These English skills have been useful for grant writing too. That’s right – I asked Clara to tell me about the less glamorous parts of being a grad student.

“The process of finding money is something I wish people talked about more,” Clara said as she wrapped her long ponytail through her hands. The through line: “If you want to do your own ideas, you have to find your own money,” she stated plainly. The process of finding money takes up a considerable amount of her time and most grants she has applied for she does not end up getting. But because she enjoys writing, she says it’s not so bad. Though Clara wishes departments were more open about research funding policies and that there were more internal grants, she’s never thought of grant writing as a waste of time. “A lot of the time when I write grants, I’m really clarifying ideas. It’s definitely helpful,” she tells me.

Grant writing takes up a considerable amount of time for most science Ph.D. students.

Clara’s advice to anyone interested in a science Ph.D. is to truly consider getting a master’s degree beforehand. “It might not be the right choice for everyone,” Clara said, “But I found the transition from undergrad to graduate school really difficult. I spent most of my master’s degree just learning how to be a grad student and figuring out how academia works, which meant that when I started my Ph.D. I could focus much more on what I wanted to research.” The time in her master’s program also helped her home in on her central interests in biology. And oh, she also recommends noise-canceling headphones, her “favorite possession.”

Although she says she is still working on figuring out her work-life balance, Clara likes being able to set her own schedule and how each week is so different from the next. Outside of lab, Clara claims she is the stereotype of ecology and evolutionary biology grad students: She enjoys rock-climbing, board games, and craft breweries. You might have to go to the Biological Sciences building to find Clara. “I haven’t broached the other areas of campus,” she said, “Undergrads are sort of scary. They use language I don’t understand, and they are all so stylish. They make me feel old.” Old at 26, the life of the biology Ph.D.

Trust-Building, Re-Visited History, and Time Pertinent to Achieve Health Equity for Black Americans

Along with being a beautiful person and leading a productive life, Henrietta Lacks is the mother of modern medicine. Her scientific child was born without Henrietta’s consent through the clinical breakthroughs and medical miracles achieved with the help of her cervical cells – HeLa cells – stolen without her knowledge when she sought healthcare. Ironically, the same treatments developed from the cells of this Black woman are inaccessible for many Black Americans contemporarily. Though Ms. Lacks passed away from cervical cancer at the premature age of 31, her unique cells have become immortal. Her story lives on as a pertinent reminder of the importance of building trust between medicine and the Black community. In honor of her birthday, expert panelists met to both celebrate Ms. Lacks and discuss the path forward in trust-building, equity, and reckoning with our history to change the narrative of healthcare for Black Americans.

The panel honored Henrietta Lacks through discussion of the path forward for biomedical research and Black communities. The panel was hosted in August in remembrance of Ms. Lacks’ birthday on August 1st.

The panel, which took place on Tuesday, August 31, began as a conversation between Nadine Barrett (Ph.D.), Robert A. Winn (M.D.) and Vanessa B. Sheppard (Ph.D.). Among their many other titles and positions, Barrett is Director, Center for Equity in Research, Dukev CTSI and Associate Director of Equity, Community and Stakeholder Strategy, Duke Cancer Institute, Dr. Winn is the Director of the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Massey Cancer Center, and Sheppard is the Associate Director of Community Outreach Engagement and Health Disparities at VCU Massey Cancer Center. The trio were joined by Reuben Warren (D.D.S., M.P.H., Dr. P.H., M.DIV.), Director of Tuskegee University’s Bioethics Center, along with a handful of other contributors including Veronica Robinson – Henrietta Lacks’ great-granddaughter and a registered nurse who represents the Lacks family on the NIH panel that reviews applications to conduct research using the HeLa genome.

A screenshot of panelists who took part in Tuesday’s conversation.

Winn began by referencing the U.S. 1932 public health service study that took place in Tuskegee, Alabama. The experiment exploited Black men in Tuskegee when an effective form of treatment for syphilis was discovered 15 years into the study but withheld from participants “to track the disease’s full progression.” In 1972, 40 years after the study began, it was the associated press, not the scientific community that finally led to the experiment’s demise and the issue of an apology from the U.S. President.

As Warren pointed out, the issue with the study was less about the treatment and more about the dishonesty, the falsifying information, and lies. “Stop calling them poor, stop calling them all sharecroppers,” Warren said of the Black men who participated in the study, “They were far more than that.” “[The study] was an issue of trust, not an issue of ignorance,” he continued. Unfortunately, when talking about this story, Winn said that Black Americans “don’t always talk about the power of us standing up and saying not again.

Bioethics violations have been a continuous part of the biomedical research enterprise in the U.S., and race and racism have been part of scientific inquiry, which continues to be of great concern, Warren said. Often, rather than putting preventative protections in place, bioethics regulations have come as a reaction to extreme violations of justice. Thus, Warren laid out a central theme of the panel that “You build trust by making yourself trustworthy and that takes time.” Rather than initiating transactional research with Black communities when the scientific and medical community needs something, Warren offered that they should start when they want to help with something.

Dr. Rueben Warren presenting examples of bioethics violations in the history of biomedical research, with most examples stemming from the United States

As Sheppard said, “[Black people] have earned a mistrust” for medical communities. This is largely hinged on Barrett’s argument that the American systems from health to education to criminal justice “are working as they were designed” – to ensure that the very inequalities that exist today came to be. Using the analogy of a marathon, Barrett said while white men in the U.S. started the race 450 years ago, Black men and women only began running this race hundreds of years later. “Those who start the race are going to…ensure that they thrive,” Barrett said. This has led to Black people dying disproportionately from often treatable diseases, Sheppard said, continuing to add that these sorts of disparities were front and center for the world to see during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the creation of our structural inequalities, the system created “two bookends: Black and white.” But there has to be a narrative that keeps this story alive. “In order to create the change, we have got to do the work to change the narrative,” said Barrett.

Nadine Barrett (Ph.D.), Director of Health Equity and Disparities at Duke Cancer Institute

Robinson pointed to the importance of history, paralleling Warren’s comments that in focusing on health equities we are fully focusing on the future in a way that ignores the past and does not deal with “what really brought us into health disparities” in the first place. Robinson said that we “can no longer sweep [conversations on the historical injustices of medical racism] under the rug.” She continued to say that the reason why Tuesday’s conversation and the ongoing dialogue that is sure to follow is so powerful is because “we are no longer victims in our own legacies” by taking over conversations at the table rather than being the topics of discussion at the table.

Mistrust in the Black community for systems of medicine and healthcare are based on hundreds of years of action. Hesitancy – from Covid-19 vaccinations to participation in clinical trials for cancer research – amongst Black Americans “aren’t us saying no,” said Robinson, “We’re saying something happened.” Sharon Ribera Sanchez, Founder-Director of Saving Pennies 4 A Cure, is a cancer survivor and advocate for people of color to engage in clinical trials because of the difference they can make in medical developments that draw on more diverse and robust data.

But there is a bigger conversation than just having more Black folks take place in research and clinical trials, Winn said. “How are you going to look at my biology without looking at my history?” he asked, referencing the genetic implications of environmental conditions and stressors from socially constructed race that impact DNA.

An image of HeLa cells

The dialogue, which was opened and closed with a prayer, also spoke to the importance of establishing regular, ongoing, transparent relationships between the Black faith community and the medical community. This should happen, not just in times of crisis, because “mass hysteria is prime for miscommunication,” Ralph Hodge, pastor of the Second Baptist Church in South Richmond, Virginia, said.

“Today was a big way of us looking back at the past, looking at where we are at now, and moving forward to the solutions,” said Barrett. This comes by letting communities know that we care, said Winn, along with “doing things with our communities, not through them.”

A key factor in deconstructing this issue and achieving health equity is time. Time to reflect on the past in order to avoid reliving it; time to generate innovative solutions to the problems at hand; and time to invest in Black communities – to learn from them, support them, and earn their trust not because they can offer science something, but because science has something to offer them.

Post by Cydney Livingston

Survival of the… Friendliest?

Chances are, you’ve heard about survival of the fittest. But what about survival of the friendliest? While we often think that the strongest, meanest, and most powerful organisms often prevail as the most fit, it seems that friendship bears the real evolutionary winners.

Brian Hare (Ph.D.) and Vanessa Woods (M.SciComm) are the researcher and co-author duo responsible for shaping this idea in their latest book, Survival of the Friendliest. On top of this extensive collaboration, the pair also happen to be married. The two discussed their work at an event series hosted by Duke Alumni Forever Learning Institute Wednesday, April 21st and Thursday, April 22nd.  Hare is a Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology, Psychology, and Neuroscience at Duke and a core member of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. Woods is the Director of the Duke Puppy Kindergarten, as well as a writer and journalist.

Vanessa Woods, Taz, and Brian Hare

In the history of evolution, friendliness often proceeds unusual evolutionary success, meaning that friendly species prevail over time. Hare and Woods are uncovering critical factors for why this pattern emerges in their research. For the context of their work, Woods defined friendliness as anything that is mutually beneficial between organisms. Their questions and investigation were first centered around dogs.

“Where did dogs come from?” Hare said. This poses a really “fascinating evolutionary problem.” Prior research shows that dogs first originated 15,000-25,000 years ago, delineated from wolves. But why? Dogs have become one of the “top two or three most successful animals,” while wolves have nearly gone extinct.

The answer to their evolution and their success is found in friendliness. “Dogs have remarkable social genius,” Hare said, they are able to understand communicative gestures and in return communicate with humans in a way that not even one of our closet genetic relatives, the Bonobo, can.  This evolutionary selection for friendliness drove the stark contrasts seen between dogs and wolves today, fundamentally changing dogs’ physical shapes and forms along with their psychology. The same pattern of genetic inheritance encoding for inclination to cooperate also changes much of a species morphology in signature ways.

Vanessa and Brian co-authored the 2020 book, Survival of the Friendliest.

Hare and Woods ventured to Siberia to analyze the findings of an experiment pertaining to fox behavior that has been ongoing since it was first set up by a Russian geneticist in 1959. One group of foxes has experienced randomly selected mating, while the other group of foxes has been artificially shaped by manmade selection for the friendliest foxes.

When they compared the long-term results of decades separate population changes, Hare and Woods found the friendlier foxes had shorter faces, different colorations, curlier tails, and smaller canines. These are the same factors used by archaeologists to distinguish dogs from wolves. The morphological and physiological changes for niceness are synonymous across the two species.

A fox from the friendly group, pictured center, has evolved different physical characteristics according to the manmade selection for friendliness in a long-running genetic experiment in Siberia.

They have also found a similar pattern in humans. Our species as not alone on the planet when it first evolved, said Hare: We shared the planet with approximately four other Hominids who also had big brains, cultural artifacts, and linguistic abilities like we do. “There had to be something in addition to those traits that allowed our species to survive while others went extinct.” He proposes survival of the friendliness and the development of different physical characteristics.

In a study comparing modern humans to archaic ones, Hare and Woods found that modern humans have traits like much smaller brow ridges and narrower, shorter faces – what you would expect to see, based on the fox model from their work in Siberia that also helped explain the evolution of dogs. Our white sclera – the white part of your eye – acts as our “curly tail.” The white tissue likely has been selected for with the development of our other friendly features, as we are the only primate whose sclera is light, which makes communication by glance easier.

Reconstructions of archaic hominid groups. The image on the far right is the reconstruction of a Homo sapiens.

If we are the friendliest, Woods asked, then why are we capable of such cruelty and malice? Even though we are extremely friendly to in-group strangers, when our in-group is threatened, we are prepared to defend them against out-group strangers.

“We are all capable of dehumanization when we feel that the group that we love … is threatened,” Woods said. This is a model they are referring to as the mother bear hypothesis: A mother bear is most patient when she is dealing with her cubs, but most angry when another organism threatens her offspring.

The number one predictor of dehumanization is the feeling that your own group or identity is being dehumanized, and in those moments, the same part of the brain that enables cooperative communication shuts down and is dampened.  

The duo cited cross-group friendships, democracy, and our perception of other animals as important factors for offsetting dehumanization in the human species. Cross-group friendships provide a bridge of empathy, democracy contributes to collective group identity and decisions, and our perceptions of other animals limit dehumanization when we have an ecological view of our relation to other species rather than a top-down, human-centric approach.

Darwin was also a fan of friendliness in nature!

“You have to understand what was wrong about the past but not blind yourself to what you do find,” Woods said when asked about the dark history of morphology-based pseudo-sciences that prompted racial persecutions. This is something that the pair reckons with for a whole chapter in their book.

“You can see in our faces the faces of friendliness,” Hare said.

May we all lean into this niceness after encountering Hare and Woods work. It’s gotten us this far, and it seems particularly vital for our collective future.

Post by Cydney Livingston

Black Americans’ Vaccine Hesitancy is Grounded in More Than Mistrust

Covid-19 is considered a “general pandemic,” but its impacts have been disproportionate along the lines of race and ethnicity. Though vaccines may serve as our best chance to put an end to Covid, the problem of vaccine hesitancy amongst Black people in the U.S. is particularly pervasive and grounded by more than simple mistrust.

Gary Bennett (Ph.D.) discussed the issue of complex determinants of vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans Monday, April 5. Bennett is a Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, Global Health, and Medicine at Duke, as well as director of Duke Digital Health and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education.

Gary Bennett, Ph.D.

“At the end of the day, we are dealing with an issue that demands pragmatic attention,” Bennett said, “How do we get shots in arms?” It turns out, the answer is quite complex and historically confounded.

While Black people have experienced much higher burdens from Covid-19 despite contracting the disease at a similar rate to whites, they have been disproportionately vaccinated at lower rates than white people.

“Access matters and it matters a lot,” Bennett said. One clear example of decreased access for Black Americans is that fewer vaccination sites are located in areas with high concentrations of Black people.

However, Bennett said, access does not simply equal place. “How much friction are you creating in this process?” he prompted, pointing to examples of complicated registration systems, inadequate public transportation to vaccine sites, or overall distance from a location. All of these factors already limit who is able to access vaccinations without the added influences of reduced vaccine uptake due to vaccine hesitancy.

A slide from Dr. Bennett’s presentation which outlines the plethora of impactors on access.

Vaccine hesitancy was listed by the World Health Organization as a top 10 global threat in 2019, when vaccines were preventing 2-3 million deaths per year in the pre-Covid era. Though Bennett said that vaccine hesitancy “has been with us for a long time,” there “are real consequences” to continued reluctance and refusal to get vaccinated with heightened risks due to the nature of the pandemic.

Bennett said that many claims around hesitancy blame communities for their inability to access vaccines, but this fails to consider or to change the underlying behaviors that drive hesitancy. Bennett outlined these underlying drivers as 1) mistrust, 2) social norms, and 3) understandable uncertainties.

A slide from Dr. Bennett’s presentation showing the unequal distribution of vaccination sites in Atlanta GA in predominantly white areas.

“It’s not just mistrust of the medical system, it’s mistrust of institutions,” Bennett said, “There’s a lot of reasons for [Black people] to mistrust institutions.” The murder of George Floyd stands as one poignant contemporary example, but “Tuskegee [still] looms large in the minds of Black Americans.” The Tuskegee experiment exploited 600 Black men working as sharecroppers who had syphilis by knowingly withholding treatment and simply seeing what happened to their bodies as a result of the disease for over 40 years.

This experiment was not the first of its kind: Whole body radiation was tested on Black people. Fistula surgery was developed on enslaved Black women by the “father of modern gynecology.” The immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, have been used far and wide to advance science after a sample of her cancerous cervix was unknowingly stolen from her. Modern studies have also shown how different implicit biases of Black patients shape their treatment outcomes due to skewed physician perceptions.

The capital riot, the murder of George Floyd, and the Jim Crow Era all exemplify the pervasive institutionalized racism that erodes Black trust in U.S. institutions of all kinds.

Our social networks are also vitally important to influencing our feelings about receiving the Covid vaccine. In Black communities, Bennett said, fewer people in their networks have gotten vaccinations and those who have received vaccines are less vocal about it leading to a collective lack of interest in receiving vaccinations.

These two factors, paired with understandable uncertainties about the side effects of the vaccine or potentially getting Covid itself, generate the need to change our approaches to vaccine hesitancy and increased uptake amongst Black communities in the U.S.

White people have been disproportionately vaccinated over all other racial/ethnic categories in the U.S.

To do this we need to lead with empathy and appreciate the fact that changing attitudes towards vaccines is a process. “Shaming people is bad,” Bennett said. “Stigmatizing people will actually lead to the converse of what we expect.”

Over time, we can work to correct misconceptions, contextualized uncertainties, and share stories rather than statistics to push people further from vaccine refusal and closer to vaccine demand.

And when more Black Americans are ready, “vaccination should be an easy choice.” By implementing opt-out policies, rather than opt-in and by taking more direct actions like making vaccination appointments for people, Covid vaccines may indeed be the key to ending the pandemic – in an equitable and proportionate way.

Post by Cydney Livingston

Duke Junior Mixes Memory Research with Criminal Justice Reform

What do you get when you mix double majors in Philosophy and Psychology with a certificate in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics? You get someone like Kelis Johnson, a junior from Lithonia, Georgia in suburban Atlanta, who works in not one research lab at Duke, but two.

Kelis is a member of The Marsh Lab studying learning and memory in Psychology and Neuroscience, and The Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law, using legal and scientific research to advance criminal justice reform.

Kelis Johnson, member of the Marsh Lab and the Wilson Center for Science and Justice

“Managing two research assistant positions while working as an embedded writing consultant with the Thompson Writing Studio, on top of my academics, can definitely be a challenge,” Kelis says. But, she said, “The way that I have been able to manage these positions along with the rest of my busy schedule is cohesion: Although working in a lab provides a different context than the material from my classes, I think my lab work and classwork supplement one another in a profound way.”

After taking a class with Elizabeth Marsh, the lab’s Principal Investigator, Kelis found herself “interested in deepening [her] knowledge of and experience with memory research,” so she reached out to get involved in the summer of 2020. The lab has provided her a means to explore her interests in the “intersections between memory and personal identity, education and the law.”

Simultaneously, in the midst of the (first) Covid-19 summer, Kelis worked with the Microworlds Lab. She conducted historical research that profiled Black female activists. “I felt like my interests and passions began to converge on activism and bringing about change while also exploring empirical research,” she said, “This passion aligned with the work being done at the Wilson Center who use research to advance civil rights.” She joined her second lab in the fall of 2020.

Dr. Elizabeth Marsh surrounded by research assistants of the Marsh Lab

In both positions, Kelis meets weekly with her fellow colleagues to discuss an overview of the labs work or the current research in the field. She finds this fulfilling, knowing that the work she and fellow research assistants have contributed to is providing “concrete advancements … in the labs and the world more broadly.” Kelis’ work consists mostly of coding or scoring data. This means reading study participants’ responses and using a codebook (like a grading rubric) to determine how each response compares to the standard established in the experimental protocol. Kelis also participates in literature reviews and stimuli creation, where she generates relevant material such as questions, statements, or images that will be used in experiments to test research questions.

This work has enabled Kelis to meet fellow undergraduates, along with graduate students and faculty mentors, who have similar interests to her own. She has learned more about grant writing, research ethics, and statistical tools. Along with providing her invaluable research experience, strengthening her passions for criminal justice reform, and reinforcing her plans to go to law school following graduation from Duke, through her work with the Wilson Center, Kelis has been able to learn more about Durham and North Carolina. This prompted her to think deeper about her role in the larger communities around her.

Image of Duke Law School, where the Wilson Center is located.

Kelis’ research is valuable outside of the lab. “Memory research is essential to how we learn, how we structure our life and personal identity, and how we form relationships with others,” Kelis said. She also stated that, “Learning about and reforming our criminal justice system is something we must all care about. In order to attack the systematic oppression of marginalized groups, we have to understand it.”

Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, Kelis has been unable to participate in person with either of her labs. This is something she is emphatically looking forward to. However, the virtual realm has enabled other forms of meaningful interactions and experiences through digital platforms. Kelis says she really appreciates “the events hosted by the [Wilson Center] Lab that often feature exonerated individuals who speak about their experience within the criminal justice system.”

Kelis’ contributions to projects from memory difference in older and younger adults to autobiographical memory are surely only the first steps in a planned lifetime of standing at the intersection between memory, identity, and the structures of our society.

Post by Cydney Livingston

Centering Patients and Expanding Access in the Opioid Epidemic

We are still in the midst of an opioid epidemic. In 2019, an average of six North Carolinians died each day from unintentional medication or drug overdose. A striking 79% of drug overdose deaths in NC in 2018 involved opioids. This has garnered attention from many organizations and institutions in the state and prompted new concerns relating to patient-centered care.

A Duke Global Health discussion on March 17 concluded that the social response can be aided by a refined focus on mental health, as well as the use of telehealth – the delivery of health care and education remotely through various technologies.

Moderated by Brandon Knettel (Ph.D.), the Duke Global Health Institute panel considered treatment, community engagement, and public policy in addressing the opioid epidemic with panelists Nidhi Sachdeva (MPH), Padma Gulur (M.D.) Hilary Campbell (PharmD, J.D.), and Theresa Coles (Ph.D.)

Sachdeva is a Senior Research Program Leader with the Department of Population Health Sciences at Duke Medical School. Dr. Gulur is a Professor of Anesthesiology and Population Health with Duke Medical School and Executive Vice Chair of the Pain Management and Opioid Surveillance with Duke University Health System. Campbell is director of Sheps Health Workforce Health Professions Data System at UNC-Chapel Hill. Coles is Assistant Professor in Population Health Sciences with Duke Medical School.

Sachdeva opened the panel with a discussion of the Duke Opioid Collaboratory. The Collaboratory currently houses 25 different projects relating to improving data surveillance, health system quality, and public health in the realm of research on opioids.

“We’re losing more and more folks every day,” said Sachdeva. Duke’s projects represent a systems approach to the opioid epidemic, meaning there is lots of valuable overlap and connectivity between projects, and external partnerships that have provided a unique opportunity for academic and community collaboration.

Dr. Gulur stated that Duke Health has seen improvements in opioid use and prescription over the last five to six years: the ambulatory prescribing rate has gone down, fewer patients are requiring high-dose opioids overall, and there has been significant increase in availability to offer medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder. Like Sachdeva, Gulur’s work with Duke’s Pain Management and Opioid Surveillance exists within a larger network of organizations dedicated to the opioid issue.

“We have a very committed and collaborative infrastructure with [other] initiatives in the state,” said Gulur, who added that she is dedicated to making “sure we have all the voices at the table.”

A collective display of the Duke Opioid Collaboratory projects

Simply decreasing opioid prescriptions “doesn’t necessarily work” and solving this issue will not be a quick fix. Campbell said that her own research found that at the same time the “supply side” of opioids was shrinking, the state was “seeing the crisis getting worse.”

Enter telehealth and the need for expanded support to mental health resources. Coles explained their pertinence through discussion of her work with Granville-Vance Public Health. Coles has been working on an expanding project that assesses training, operational challenges, patient centered goals, and success from the patient’s perspective within Granville-Vance’s opioid program.

Coles found that inconsistent funding lead to lapses in access to mental health support and the “dropout of someone there to help [with behavioral health] was challenging for patients.” Telehealth bridges the gaps of inconsistent access. Further, in the case of Coles’ study, it also played a large role in increased access for patients who experienced transportation issues since the investigation took place in conjunction to Covid-19, which lowered patients’ abilities to physically attend the program in-person.

Because “no one person experiences opioid abuse … in a vacuum,” as Sachdeva said, it is important to get a comprehensive “assessment of what a person’s life looks like and their priorities for treatment” before jumping into treatment.

This map displays the concentration of unintentional medication and drug overdose death rates across the 100 counties of North Carolina.

Though the last year living under the Covid-19 pandemic has been difficult for the entire globe, the increased need for access to resources through the internet and various technologies has been positively reinforced. With new understandings of relationships to others and limited physical access to in-person healthcare, telehealth has emerged as a means to resolve decreased access. It can also serve as a way to expand access for populations who have historically suffered from inadequate access to healthcare resources, like rural populations.

Opioids “have and will continue to play a role in pain management,” Dr. Gulur said. However, better efforts to involve patients and their families in decision making around opioids, as well as more fully informed understandings of the potential risks and side effects, is necessary for centering patient priorities in care management.

Sachdeva emphasized a “nothing about us without us” philosophy for approaching the opioid epidemic. This means that the systems of care being changed to address opioid crises must depend directly on people who use opioids. It is important to center “lived experience through the whole thing.” Because each community is different, it is inadequate to make assumptions about “what a community is, what it might need, or what its story is.”

The self-described objectives of the Duke Opioid Collaboratory, which overlaps largely with other initiatives discussed during the panel.

Underlying this work is a question from Dr. Gulur, “What are you trying to treat?”

To treat the opioid epidemic, we need to treat people as complex, multi-dimensional people living complicated lives. Opioid use is only one facet of this narrative, making it pertinent to understand the rest of the story to adequately tackle this problem our nation faces. Mental health and access to care are central to this collective narrative more largely.

Post by Cydney Livingston

Increasing Access to Care with the Help of Big Data

Artificial intelligence (AI) and data science have the potential to revolutionize global health. But what exactly is AI and what hurdles stand in the way of more widespread integration of big data in global health? Duke’s Global Health Institute (DGHI) hosted a Think Global webinar Wednesday, February 17th to dive into these questions and more.  

The webinar’s panelists were Andy Tatem (Ph.D), Joao Vissoci (Ph.D.), and Eric Laber (Ph.D.), moderated by DGHI’s Director of Research Design and Analysis Core, Liz Turner (Ph.D.).  Tatem is a professor of spatial demography and epidemiology at the University of South Hampton and director of WorldPop. Vissoci is an assistant professor of surgery and global health at Duke University. Laber is a professor of statistical science and bioinformatics at Duke.

Panelist moderator, Lisa Turner

Tatem, Vissoci, and Laber all use data science to address issues in the global health realm. Tatem’s work largely utilizes geospatial data sets to help inform global health decisions like vaccine distribution within a certain geographic area. Vissoci, who works with the GEMINI Lab at Duke (Global Emergency Medicine Innovation and Implementation Research), tries to leverage secondary data from health systems in order to understand issues of access to and distribution of care, as well as care delivery. Laber is interested in improving decision-making processes in healthcare spaces, attempting to help health professionals synthesize very complex data via AI.

All of their work is vital to modern biomedicine and healthcare, but, Turner said, “AI means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.” Laber defined AI in healthcare simply as using data to make healthcare better. “From a data science perspective,” Vissoci said, “[it is] synthesizing data … an automated way to give us back information.” This returned info is digestible trends and understandings derived from very big, very complex data sets. Tatem stated that AI has already “revolutionized what we can do” and said it is “powerful if it is directed in the right way.”

A screenshot from worldpop.org

We often get sucked into a science-fiction version of AI, Laber said, but in actuality it is not some dystopian future but a set of tools that maximizes what can be derived from data.

However, as Tatem stated, “[AI] is not a magic, press a button” scenario where you get automatic results. A huge part of work for researchers like Tatem, Vissoci, and Laber is the “harmonization” of working with data producers, understanding data quality, integrating data sets, cleaning data, and other “back-end” processes.

This comes with many caveats.

“Bias is a huge problem,” said Laber. Vissoci reinforced this, stating that the models built from AI and data science are going to represent what data sources they are able to access – bias included. “We need better work in getting better data,” Vissoci said.

Further, there must be more up-front listening to and communication with “end-users from the very start” of projects, Tatem outlined. By taking a step back and listening, tools created through AI and data science may be better met with actual uptake and less skepticism or distrust. Vissoci said that “direct engagement with the people on the ground” transforms data into meaningful information.

Better structures for meandering privacy issues must also be developed. “A major overhaul is still needed,” said Laber. This includes things like better consent processes for patients’ to understand how their data is being used, although Tatem said this becomes “very complex” when integrating data.

Nonetheless the future looks promising and each panelist feels confident that the benefits will outweigh the difficulties that are yet to come in introducing big data to global health. One cool example Vissoci gave of an ongoing project deals with the influence of environmental change through deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon on the impacts of Indigenous populations. Through work with “heavy multidimensional data,” Vissoci and his team also have been able to optimize scarcely distributed Covid vaccine resource “to use in areas where they can have the most impact.”

Laber envisions a world with reduced or even no clinical trials if “randomization and experimentation” are integrated directly into healthcare systems. Tatem noted how he has seen extreme growth in the field in just the last 10 to 15 years, which seems only to be accelerating.

A lot of this work has to do with making better decisions about allocating resources, as Turner stated in the beginning of the panel. In an age of reassessment about equity and access, AI and data science could serve to bring both to the field of global health.

Post by Cydney Livingston

Student Team Quantifies Housing Discrimination in Durham

Home values and race have an intimate connection in Durham, NC. From 1940 to 2020, if mean home values in Black-majority Census tracts had appreciated at rates equal to those in white Census tracts, the mean home value for homes in Black tracts would be $94,642 higher than it is.

That’s the disappointing, but perhaps not shocking, finding of a Duke Data+ team.

Because housing accounts for the biggest portion of wealth for families that fall outside of the top 10% of wealth in the U.S., this figure on home values represents a pervasive racial divide in wealth.

What started as a Data+ project in the summer of 2020 has expanded into an ongoing exploration of the connection between persistent wealth disparities across racial lines through housing. Omer Ali (Ph.D.), a postdoctoral associate with The Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity, is leading undergraduates Nicholas Datto and Pei Yi Zhuo in the continuation of their initial work. The trio presented an in-depth analysis of their work and methods Friday, February 5th during a Data Dialogue.

The team used a multitude of data to conduct their analyses, including the 1940 Census, Durham County records, CoreLogic data for home sales and NC voter registrations. Aside from the nearly $100,000 difference between mean home values between Black census tracts (defined as >50% Black homeowners from 1940-2020) and white census tracts (defined as >50% white homeowners from 1940-2020), Ali, Datto, and Zhou also found that over the last 10 years, home values have risen in Black neighborhoods as they have been losing Black residents. Within Census tracts, the team said that Black home-buyers in Durham occupy the least valuable homes.

Home Owners Loan Corporation data

Datto introduced the concept of redlining — systemic housing discrimination — and explained how this historic issue persists. From 1930-1940, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) designated certain neighborhoods unsuitable for mortgage lending. Neighborhoods were given a desirability grade from A to D, with D being the lowest.

In 1940, no neighborhoods with Black residents were designated as either A or B districts. That meant areas with non-white residents were considered more risky and thus less likely to receive FHA-guaranteed mortgages.

Datto explained that these historic classifications persist because the team found significant differences in the amount of accumulated home value over time by neighborhood rating. We are “seeing long-lasting effects of these redlined maps on homeowners in Durham, “ said Datto, with even “significant differences between white [and non-white] homeowners, even in C and D neighborhoods.”

Zhou explained the significance of tracking the changes of each Census tract – Black, white, or integrated – over the last 50 years. The “white-black disparity [in home value] has grown by 287%” in this time period, he said. Homes of comparable structural design and apparent worth are much less valuable for simply existing in Black neighborhoods and being owned by Black people. And the problem has only expanded.

Along with differences in home value, both Black and white neighborhoods have seen a decline in Black homeowners in the 21st Century, pointing to a larger issue at hand. Though the work done so far merely documents these trends, rather than looking for correlation that may get at the underlying causes of the home-value disparity, the trends pair closely with other regions across the country being impacted by gentrification.

“Home values are going up in Black neighborhoods, but the number of Black people in those neighborhoods is going down,” said Datto.

Ali pointed out that there are evaluation practices that include evaluation of the neighborhood “as opposed to the structural properties of the home.” When a house is being evaluated, he said a home of similar structure owned by white homeowners would never be chosen as a comparator for a Latinx- or Black-owned home. This perpetuates historical disparities, as “minority neighborhoods have been historically undervalued” it is a compounding, systemic cycle.

The team hopes to export their methodology to a much larger scale. Thus far, this has presented some back-end issues with data and computer science, however “there is nothing in the analysis itself that couldn’t be [applied to other geographical locations,” they said.

Large socioeconomic racial disparities prevail in the U.S., from gaps in unemployment to infant mortality to incarceration rates to life expectancy itself. Though it should come as no surprise that home-values represent another area of inequity, work like Ali, Datto, and Zhou are conducting needs more traction, support, and expansion.

Post by Cydney Livingston

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