Duke Research Blog

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

Author: Daniel Egitto

Duke Alumni Share Their SpaceX Experiences

It was 8 o’clock on a Monday night and Teer 203 was packed. A crowd of largely Pratt Engineering students had crammed into practically every chair in the room, as if for lecture. Only, there were no laptops out tonight. No one stood at the blackboard, teaching.

SpaceX launches

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Dragon rockets in simultaneous liftoff

No, these students had given up their Monday evening for something more important. Tonight, engineering professor Rebecca Simmons was videoconferencing with six recent Duke grads—all of whom are employed at the legendary aerospace giant SpaceX, brainchild of tech messiah Elon Musk.

Eager to learn as much as possible about the mythic world of ultracompetitive engineering, the gathered students spent the next hour and fifteen minutes grilling Duke alumni Anny Ning (structures design engineering), Kevin Seybert (integration and test engineering), Matthew Pleatman and Daniel Lazowski (manufacturing engineering), and Zachary Loncar (supply chain) with as many questions as they could squeeze through.

Over the course of the conversation, Duke students seemed particularly interested in the overall culture of SpaceX: What was it like to actually work there? What do the employees think of the SpaceX environment, or the way the company approaches engineering?

One thing all of the alumni were quick to key in on was the powerful emphasis their company placed on flexibility and engagement.

“It’s much harder to find someone that says ‘no’ at SpaceX,” Pleatman said. “It’s way easier to find someone who says ‘yes.’ ”

SpaceX’s workflow, Seybert added, is relentlessly adaptive. There are no strict boundaries on what you can work on in your job, and the employee teams are made up of continually evolving combinations of specialists and polymaths.

“It’s extremely dynamic,” Seybert said. “Whatever the needs of the company are, we will shift people around from week to week to support that.”

“It’s crazy—there is no typical week,” Lazowski added. “Everything’s changing all the time.”

SpaceX Launch

Launch of Hispasat 30W-6 Mission

Ning, for her part, focused a great deal on the flexibility SpaceX both offers and demands. New ideas and a willingness to question old ways of thinking are critical to this company’s approach to innovation, and Ning noted that one of the first things she had to learn was to be continuously on the lookout for ways her methods could be improved.

“You should never hear someone say, ‘Oh, we’re doing this because this is how we’ve always done it,’ ” she said.

The way SpaceX approaches engineering and innovation, Seybert explained, is vastly different from how traditional aerospace companies have tended to operate. SpaceX employees are there because of their passion for their work. They focus on the projects they want to focus on, they move between projects on a day-to-day basis, and they don’t expect to stay at any one engineering company for more than a few years. Everything is geared around putting out the best possible product, as quickly as humanly possible.

So now, the million dollar question: How do you get in?

“One thing that I think links us together is the ability to work hands-on,” Loncar offered.

Pleatman agreed. “If you want to get a job at SpaceX directly out of school, it’s really important to have an engineering project that you’ve worked on. It doesn’t matter what it is, but just something where you’ve really made a meaningful contribution, worked hard, and can really talk through the design from start to finish.”

Overall, passion, enthusiasm and flexibility were overarching themes. And honestly, that seems pretty understandable. We are talking about rockets, after all — what’s not to be excited about? These Duke alums are out engineering the frontier of tomorrow — bringing our species one step closer to its place among the stars.

As Ning put it, “I can’t really picture a future where we’re not out exploring space.”

Post by Daniel Egitto

Library’s Halloween Exhibit Fascinates and Thrills

Research is not always for the faint of heart.

scary doll_Duke Library

Screamfest V combed through centuries of Rubenstein materials to find the very spookiest of artifacts

At least, that’s what Rubenstein Library seemed to be saying this Halloween with the fifth installment of its sometimes freaky, always fascinating “Screamfest” exhibition. With everything from centuries-old demonology textbooks, to tarot cards, to Duke-based parapsychology studies, Screamfest V took a dive into the deep end of the research Duke has gathered throughout its long history.

There’s a lot to unpack about this exhibit, but one of the most unsettling parts has to be the 1949 written exchange between Duke parapsychologist Joseph Rhine and Lutheran Reverend Duther Schulze, speaking about a boy they thought could be demonically possessed.

“Now he has visions of the devil and goes into a trance and speaks a strange language,” Duther wrote.

Anything about that sound familiar? If so, that might be because this case was the basis for the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. (And people say research isn’t cool!)

The Rubenstein also exhibited a pack of cards used by Rhine’s parapsychology lab to test for extrasensory perception. Inscribed with vaguely arcane symbols, one of these “Zener cards” would be flipped over by a researcher behind a screen, and a test subject on the other side would attempt to “sense” what card the researcher displayed.

Zener cards for ESP

A pack of “Zener cards” Duke researchers once used to test for ESP

Although the results of this test were never replicated outside of Duke and are today widely considered debunked, Rhine’s research did create a stir in some circles at the time. One of the most interesting things about this exhibit, in fact, was the way it showed how much methods and topics in science have changed over time.

A 1726 publication of the book Sadducismus triumphatus: or, A full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions, for example, was loaded with supernatural “research” and “findings” every bit as dense and serious as the title would suggest. The section this tome was opened to bore this subheading: “Proving partly by Holy Scripture, partly by a choice Collection of Modern Relations, the Real EXISTENCE of Apparitions, Spirits, & Witches.”

A similar book titled The Discoverie of Witchcraft, was also on display—only this one was printed over two centuries later, in 1930.

A Depression-era miniature of the Duke mascot, somewhat worse for wear.

Other historical gems the exhibit offered included an a threadbare ‘blue devil’ doll from the ‘30s; a book made up of a lengthy collection of newspaper clippings following the case of Lizzie Borden, a reported axe murderer from the 1890s; and an ad for the 1844 “Life Preserving Coffin … for use in doubtful cases of death.”

It’s not every day research will leave the casual viewer quaking in their boots, but Screamfest V was quick to live up to its name. Covering a broad swath of Duke materials from several centuries, this exhibit successfully pulled off vibes of education, spookiness, and Halloween fun, all at the same time.

Post by Daniel Egitto

Students Bring Sixty Years of Data to Life on the Web

For fields like environmental science, collecting data is hard.

Fall colors by Mariel Carr

Fall colors in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

Gathering results on a single project can mean months of painstaking measurements, observations and notes, likely in limited conditions, hopefully to be published in a highly specialized journal with a target audience made up mostly of just other specialists in the field.

That’s why when, this past summer, Duke students Devri Adams, Camila Restrepo and Annie Lott set out with  graduate students Richard Marinos, Matt Ross and Professor Emily Bernhardt to combine over six decades of data on the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest into a workable, aesthetically pleasing visualization website, they were really breaking new ground in the way the public can appreciate this truly massive store of information.

The site’s navigation shows users what kinds of data they might explore in beautiful fashion.

Spanning some 8,000 acres of New Hampshire’s sprawling White Mountain National Forest, Hubbard Brook has captured the thoughts and imaginations of generations of environmental researchers. Over 60 years of study and authorized experimentation in the region have brought us some of the longest continuous environmental data sets ever collected, tracking changes across a variety of factors for the second half of the 20th century.

Now, for the first time ever, this data has been brought together into a comprehensive, agile interface available to specialists and students alike. This website is developed with the user constantly in mind. At once in-depth and flexible, each visualization is designed so that a casual viewer can instantly grasp a variety of factors all at the same time—pH, water source, molecule size and more all made clearly evident from the structures of the graphs.

Additionally, this website’s axes can be as flexible as you need them to be; users can manipulate them to compare any two variables they want, allowing for easy study of all potential correlations.

All code used to build this website has been made entirely open source, and a large chunk of the site was developed with undergrads and high schoolers in mind. The team hopes to supplement textbook material with a series of five “data stories” exploring different studies done on the forest. The effects of acid rain, deforestation, dilutification, and calcium experimentation all come alive on the website’s interactive graphs, demonstrating the challenges and changes this forest has faced since studies on it first began.

The team hopes to have created a useful and user-friendly interface that’s easy for anyone to use. By bringing data out of the laboratory and onto the webpage, this project brings us one step further in the movement to make research accessible to and meaningful for the entire world.

Post by Daniel Egitto

New Blogger Daniel Egitto: Freshman and Aspiring Journalist

Hi, I’m Daniel Egitto, a freshman at Duke with an intended major in English. I’m from Florida, and I spent the better part of my childhood growing up in some small, quiet suburbs surrounded by pretty much nothing but farms, rivers and untouched forest for acres and acres around. Out where I lived, it was nearly impossible to ever get more than a few miles from the wilderness that still covers a huge chunk of Florida today. Mazes of pine and oak forests made up my backyard, crisscrossed with bubbling springs and dotted with the occasional deer, coyote or alligator peeking out of the trees. It was there in those Florida woods, kayaking and hiking through some of America’s last wild places, that I first fell in love with the natural world and the conservationist issues facing our country today.

Daniel Egitto in a tree

Incoming freshman Daniel Egitto is pursuing an English major for a future career in journalism.

Because despite its treasure trove of both scientific and recreational gems, Florida has a truly terrible history of protecting natural heritage. Governor Rick Scott, for example, brought in a gag rule on the words “climate change” appearing in any state environmental document, while at the same time the well-being of those springs I came to know and love in my childhood has faced rising challenges due to unsustainable farming practices and water use policies. An unacceptable number of Americans are still unaware of both the struggles and opportunities this country’s biodiversity has always offered, and because of this I have come to develop a passion for both science education and topical journalism in general.

In high school my experiences led me to reach out into my community, engaging with children about basic scientific concepts at a local robotics camp and “Science Saturdays” series. I also became heavily involved with my school’s newly-founded newspaper, where I helped shift its focus onto important yet poorly-publicized struggles of both our society and our world as a whole.

As I enter into my first year on Duke campus, I hope to work with the Duke Research Blog to further both my interests and my goals. I’m currently pursuing a future career in journalism, and by working with Duke Research I hope we can all help nurture a more informed and understanding world.

In addition to my work with this blog, I also intend to get involved with the Chronicle and Me Too Monologues on campus.

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