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

Students exploring the Innovation Co-Lab

Author: Devin Nieusma

2016 Going on 2030: The Madagascar Winter Forum

For two and a half cold days in January, 91 Duke students and I had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in Malagasy culture—without the warmth of its sub-tropical climate.

We were participants in Duke’s 2016 Winter Forum:  ‘Madagascar 2030: Sustainable Development Innovation Challenge’. The goal was to design solutions to help the country meet its Sustainable Development goals by the year 2030.

Winning team Mamboly

Winning team Mamboly

After being divided into teams of four or five, we were all given a task to solve through the creation of a social venture. The forum was steeped in the spirit of entrepreneurship, with lessons and guidance being given by Duke faculty members, notably Deb Johnson and Matthew Nash from the I&E Center, and social entrepreneurs in Madagascar.

The forum began with a trip to the Duke Lemur Center, followed by lectures about Madagascar at Fuqua School of Business from faculty and guest speakers.

After spending a day learning about the island nation’s wonderful history and biodiversity, as well as its challenges, we were ready to work on our pitch. Each team was given about 36 hours to help solve one of the country’s most pressing problems: poverty, food insecurity, environment, and health.

Team YOgLO presenting their pitch for locust harvesting as fare for food-insecure regions.

Team YOgLO presenting their pitch for locust harvesting as fare for food-insecure regions.

So my team and I had a day and a half to help solve hunger in Madagascar.

Some hours and many headaches later, we created a model of a scalable non-profit social venture using innovative aquaponic farming technology. And, after overcoming a disaster featuring spilled orange juice, a laptop, and unsaved changes, we were ready to pitch.

I was blown away by the wide range of creative solutions that were offered by my peers. From an agricultural research framework, to a locust-farming business, each team made an effective argument for how they could help mitigate food insecurity in Madagascar.

Team Mamboly, won with a pitch for a scholarship program in sustainable agricultur. Team Medex, was the people’s choice for their proposal to use drones to deliver much-needed medicines to isolated communities.

One of my favorite takeaways from the forum.

One of my favorite takeaways from the forum.

The forum taught me the importance of research in entrepreneurship, social and otherwise (and I’m not just saying that because I happen to write for the Duke Research Blog). Most of the time we spent on our pitch was gathering information about food insecurity in southwest Madagascar and how our idea can be designed with the local area in mind.

I also learned that well-meaning ventures often fail because the do-gooder didn’t use human-centered design in their product or service, or didn’t do enough research into the current competition, the culture of the area, or how they might scale their product.

My teammate Elena Lie “learned to never leave drinks close to my laptop, to always save presentations on the cloud, and to always keep calm when the unexpected things happen.” And William Ding “learned a lot about Madagascar and the issues it faces from experts on the field, both in-person and over Skype.”

Until next year.

2015-09-03 17.36.37 Post by Devin Nieusma, Duke 2019

Dam Good Research on Invasive Beavers in Patagonia


Alejandro Pietrek and a subject of his research. Photo by Duke Forward.


For three years, Duke student Alejandro Pietrek has bravely grappled with some unusual marauders of the forests and steppes of Patagonia: invasive beavers. A biology graduate student, Pietrek recently presented his dissertation on the “Demography of invasive beavers in the heterogeneous landscapes of Patagonia.” Pietrek has studied over two dozen colonies of beavers in order to answer three questions:

  • “How do differences between habitats affect the demography of invaders?”
  • “How does density dependence affect the abundance and distribution of invaders post-establishment?”
  • “How can we manage biological invasions?”

Pietrek began by explaining how the furry rodents started ravaging the natural habitat of Patagonia, beginning with 20 beavers intentionally introduced into the forests of Tierra del Fuego in 1946. By the late 1960s, the growing colonies spread to the continent.

Today there are an estimated 100,000 individuals in Patagonia, disrupting the regional habitats and destroying biodiversity.

The biologist tackled his first question via quantitative science. “Very simply mathematical models have shown that speed of invasion is determined by two main things: population growth rate and movement,” he said. How the different habitats of Patagonia affected this invasion was what he worked to find out, by measuring colony size and the number of kits. Pietrek directly observed 25 colonies in each habitat over three years, using binoculars and seemingly endless patience. “It was very fun,” he said. He found that steppe habitats tended to have higher numbers of beavers and kits compared to forest.

Beaver Dam - Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina - Photograph by Anne Dirkse via Wikimedia Commons

Beaver Dam – Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina – Photograph by Anne Dirkse via Wikimedia Commons

Pietrek believed that the answer to the first question was counterintuitive, and he explored the possible reason in the second, where he figured the cause to be density dependence, as beavers in the steppe were more likely to survive in higher populations, and thus were dependent on living in large colonies for survival. In the forest, colony size wasn’t as important to the survival of the beavers. Pietrek found that as population density increased, the animals’ choice of landform changed: with denser numbers, the beavers were more likely to choose u-shaped valleys and plains than canyons. He noted the importance of identifying the preferred habitat of beavers, as it may allow easier detection of the presence of the invasive species.

Finally, Pietrek applied his findings toward the management of biological invasions. “One thing we can do is to build a model to predict the spread of beavers,” he said. He observed that beavers spread on average 7.8 km per year, though he also used individual-based models as well in order to track juvenile beavers. He found that young beavers tended to disperse and form new colonies, and formed another model in order to track this dispersal pattern. Juvenile beavers will first search for mates within their original colonies, only moving along if none can be found. These findings make for easier tracking of beavers across the landscape, allowing for easier management of their population growth.

2015-09-03 17.36.37 



Post by Devin Nieusma, Duke 2019

Deep Brain Stimulation as Treatment for Parkinson's

As if a Nobel Prize weren’t enough, another Duke scientist recently earned a prestigious award for groundbreaking research. Warren Grill was recognized Nov. 2 at the MDB Trent Semans Center for his research and development of deep brain stimulation (DBS) treatments for Parkinson’s disease.

He won the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award, which was was created by the U.S. Congress in honor of Senator Jacob Javits, a U.S. politician who succumbed to ALS. The award is worth $4 million, and is used to fund four years of research devoted to curing neurological diseases.


Warren Grill of biomedical engineering was honored with the Javits Award for his work in biomedical neuroscience

Grill is a professor of biomedical engineering, neurobiology, and electrical and computer engineering at Duke whose research has earned him numerous previous awards; including the Scholar/Teacher of the Year award in 2014.

In a talk recognizing his Javits award, Grill stressed the importance of developing non-pharmaceutical treatments for neurological conditions as society faces the increasing prevalence of cognitive diseases in coming decades. “Pills will not save us,” he said.

He also pointed out that pharmaceutical companies seem to avoid developing medicines for mental illness, due to their calculation that the financial cost isn’t worth the low chance of success in curing brain diseases. However, he argues, treatments such as DBS are proving them wrong.

Deep brain stimulation is the placement of a “brain pacemaker” into what is roughly the geographic center of the head, in areas such as the VIM thalamus, globus pallidus, and subthalamic nucleus. For twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, the brain receives constant stimulation by these electrodes, causing symptoms in Parkinson’s such as tremors, rigidity, and difficulty walking to subside or even disappear. While Grill conceded that scientists do not yet understand how and why these electrodes work, he showed video evidence of patients’ improvement after receiving the treatment. For example, a patient who had a debilitating case of Parkinson’s that left him in a wheelchair was soon able to walk, make sandwiches, and even shovel snow after the implantation of the device.

Schematic of a typical deep brain stimulation device. (National Institutes of Health)

Schematic of a typical deep brain stimulation device. (National Institutes of Health)

Grill and his team have worked on improving the efficiency of the DBS device, giving it a longer lifespan and reducing the amount of surgical procedures that patients have to undergo (and the cost of  treatments). Whereas before, the devices would produce high-frequency stimulation to the brain to alleviate symptoms, Grill researched and developed a pattern of DBS with a lower frequency, using computational evolution, that would allow the device to work just as effectively while being up to 75% more efficient. His improvements on the device have allowed them to work up to seven years longer than before, reducing patient surgeries, and thus the risk of infection and misprogramming.

The next steps Grill expects to work on include the development of patient-specific patterns that work more effectively with individual patient’s brains. In addition, he hopes to allow patients to be able to adjust the frequency of their brain stimulation, thus allowing them the choice between efficacy and efficiency of the device throughout their daily lives. Studies are also being conducted into the use of DBS to treat other diseases such as Alzheimer’s, depression, Tourette’s, and epilepsy.

Watch a video of the lecture: [youtube]

Devin_Nieusma_100Post by Devin Nieusma, Duke 2019

Duke Forestry Celebrates its Roots in 75th Anniversary

Photo Credit: Duke Environment

Duke Forestry started off its 75th anniversary on Oct. 17 with a morning walk in the Duke Forest, for those brave enough to endure the week’s low temperatures. For everyone else, panel discussions were held throughout the day in Environment Hall covering a variety of topics relevant to forestry today, from its importance in modern society to the latest innovations in the field.

Forestry education at Duke began in the 1930s, when the program was established as the Duke School of Forestry. Over the years, the department evolved, and in 1990 the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies combined with the Duke Marine Laboratory to form the symbiosis that is now the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Alumni panel discussions were held by Nick Diluzio, M.E.M’10, M.F.’10, Katie Rose Levin, M.E.M.’12, M.F.’12,  Gary Myers, M.F.’77, and Meyer M. Speary, M.F.’92. The four alums have worked in various sectors of the forestry industry, and had much to share.

Discussions on the importance of forestry included its impact on capital structure and public policy, with Myers explaining how a tax law in 1979 on timberland lowered the government’s tax revenue, Diluzio tackling the importance of ecosystem services beyond the production of paper products, including clean water and carbon, and Rose considering the social benefits of forests.


Photo by Karduelis via Wikimedia Commons

Diluzio and Rose both talked about the subject of urban forestry, and its increasing relevance in today’s society. Urban forestry can be combined in a variety of ways with cities to help with infrastructure, stormwater management, and even hunger, as Diluzio brought up fruit trees being planted in Atlanta to feed the homeless. Rose discussed how urban forestry can provide a moral value in cities, as a source of recreation and stress management.

On innovation, the panelists agreed that the latest technology centered around data gathering, and its essential role in making informed decisions. Speary discussed the increasing use of drones in managing forest fires and reducing risk for firefighters, from picking up hotspots, to carrying water, smoke modeling, and examining where lightning occurs. Diluzio addressed web-GIS tools, and applying technology from other sectors to forestry.

They’ve changed the old forestry department to the Nicholas School of the Environment, but no matter what happens in forestry technology, Duke will help pave the way, with 75 years of leadership behind its back.

Devin_Nieusma_100By Devin Nieusma, Duke 2019

SiNON Overcomes Barriers to Win Grand Prize

In order to win Duke’s 16th annual Start-Up Challenge, Afreen Allam only had to cross the blood-brain barrier.


Entrepreneur, angel investor, and Duke parent Magdalena Yesil opening the event.

Amongst a pool of entrepreneurs selling raw desserts, footwear, and online education programs, her patented neurological treatment impressed the judges enough to earn her the Wickett Family Grand Prize.

The Start-Up Challenge is a year-long entrepreneurship competition with an entry pool of over 100 student teams. Throughout the year, participants get weeded out, down to the final nine teams. The Grand Finale was held in the Fuqua School of Business on Sept. 30.

Finalists were given four minutes to pitch their idea in the hopes of winning $50,000. And for Ms. Allam, that dream came true.

Her company, SiNON, will use the prize money to continue developing her product, a patented nanoparticle that encapsulates drugs to be delivered to the brain. Her research began in her third year as an undergraduate student at one of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) that was affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She delved into chemistry research, developing technologies with carbon nanotubes with the intention of creating an alternative to chemotherapy to battle cancer. She was encouraged to create a patent for her work, a process she initially didn’t know anything about but underwent anyway, receiving it about a year and a half ago.

Afreen Allam (holding giant check) with her friends, family and $50,000 in winnings.

Now a student at Fuqua, the direction of her research changed last summer, when Ms. Allam began focusing more on neurological diseases after discovering that her nanoparticle was able to cross the blood-brain barrier, something only 2 percent of drugs can do. Her current product, SiNON, works to increase the effectiveness of neurological treatments, as well as reducing associated side effects.

She said the funding from the Start-Up Challenge will help her company conduct feasibility studies to allow her to approach biotech and pharmaceutical companies.

Mighty Research Grows from DIBS Seeds

Groundbreaking neuroscience studies, referred to as the “final frontier” of research by Duke Institute for Brain Sciences director Allen Song, were the focus of the grand opening celebration at DIBS last week.

The Institute celebrated its new home underground at the Levine Science Research Center with a symposium and then a party on Sept. 10.

Faculty and students across multiple schools and disciplines worked together for the chance to earn dibs on DIBS seed money in a competition known as the Incubator Awards. Each project sought seed grants of up to $150,000 for their research in the hopes that they could show enough promise to earn outside funding and continue their work.


Dr. Greg Crawford presenting his project, “Epigenetics of Neuronal Differentiation”

The awards program began in 2007, and it’s working. DIBS seed funding of $3.4 million has been given to 34 projects which then garnered $40 million in federal and foundation grants to Duke.

These research projects have resulted in 36 research publications, three invention disclosures and patents, and more than 30 undergraduate and graduate students becoming involved with pioneering investigations into the human’s most complex organ.

Here are a few of the award-winning projects:

With their project, “Disentangling Autism,” scientists Kafui Dzirasa (Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences); Yong-hui Jiang (Pediatrics & Medical Genetics); and William Wetsel (Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences) sought to improve understanding of the pathology of autism by comparing mice with a gene for autism called SHANK3-KO with those who were born without it.

The team began using brain scans of the mice, after noting the many limitations of comparing behavioral abnormalities of affected mice to humans with the disorder. The brain scans revealed that the mice with the gene had atypical brain connectivity. The researchers intend to work with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to use these results in order to develop drugs that provide better treatment for autism.

“Retinal Imaging Biomarkers for Alzheimer’s Disease,” hoped to improve on the limited and invasive options for diagnosing the disease. A team that included James Burke (Neurology); Scott Cousins (Ophthalmology); Sina Farsiu (Biomedical Engineering and Ophthalmology); Eleonora Lad (Ophthalmology); Guy Potter (Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences); and Heather Whitson (Medicine, Geriatrics) worked in the Duke Imaging Processing Lab  to identify Alzheimer’s patients by examining their eyes.

Blue stain shows where the HARE5 gene was active in this unusually big-brained mouse embryo. (Debra Silver)

Blue stain shows where the HARE5 gene was active in this unusually big-brained mouse embryo. (Debra Silver)

The same neuro-inflammatory injuries found in the brain may also be seen in the retina, which is much more visible to doctors looking for a diagnosis. While there have been previous studies on the subject, they have been limited by factors such as small sample size and outdated imaging techniques. Using DIBS’s resources allowed the team to circumvent these issues and gather valuable data. The team’s next steps include studying the retina damage’s association with age-related macular degeneration, as well as completing one-year follow-up examinations of the patients’ progression.

“Brain Evolution” was a project launched by Blanche Capel (Cell Biology); Debra Silver (Molecular Genetics & Microbiology); and Greg Wray (Biology) with the goal of learning about the role of enhancers that regulate genes in brain development. The scientists studied how HARE5, an enhancer that is very pronounced in humans, was involved in the development of the cerebral cortex.

Mice raised with human HARE5 were shown to have a 12% larger brain on average than their typical counterparts. This was the first functional demonstration that species-specific enhancers impact development of the cerebral cortex. Future goals of the team include studying how HARE5 affects adult mice, as well as investigating the roles of HARE2 and HARE3.

(Watch video of DIBS education staff Len White and Minna Ng sharing real human brains with visitors to the “Think Inside the Box” kickoff celebration.)


Devin_Nieusma_100Post by Devin Nieusma


New Blogger: Meet Devin Nieusma

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Hi! I’m Devin, one of the newest members of the Duke Research Blog team, as well as the Duke community as a whole. I’m thrilled to be given the opportunity to write about some of the research going on at this incredible school. It amazes me to think that some of the people I’ve jostled with for a spot on the C-1 bus may be involved in cutting-edge investigations into biomedical engineering, education, animal behavior, economics, and much more.

I hail from a variety of places, including Michigan, Tennessee, and Belgium, but most recently Reston, Virginia. Now, Pegram is the place I call home.

Two adult guinea pigs, from Wikimedia Commons

Two adult guinea pigs, from Wikimedia Commons

Back at home, I was involved in a project working on developing a sustainable agriculture system for my high school. I also volunteered as a foster parent for a guinea pig rescue for several years.  While I miss working for that noble cause, I’ve swapped out guinea pigs for lemurs by becoming a member of the Roots & Shoots club here on campus. Other activities I’m involved in are the Outing Club, the Environmental Alliance, and most recently, the eco-representative organization for my residence hall.

I’m pretty much all over the map at Duke, both in terms of my academic interests and the amount of times I’ve gotten hopelessly lost. However, I am strongly considering a double major in environmental science and French.

I can’t wait to help share the research projects that my fellow Blue Devils are working on!

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