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

Students exploring the Innovation Co-Lab

Author: Erin Weeks

Learn to Fly a Drone in Three Minutes

By Erin Weeks

Missy Cummings has accomplished a lot of difficult things in her life — she was one of the Navy’s first female pilots, after all — but being a guest on The Colbert Report, she said, was hard.

Cummings told the story of her journey from Naval lieutenant to media drone expert last week at the Visualization Friday Forum seminar series in a talk (video archived here) titled “Designing a System for Navigating Small Drones in Tight Spaces.”

Missy Cummings joined Duke as an associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science last semester

Missy Cummings joined Duke as an associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science last semester.

Last semester, Cummings moved her renowned Humans and Automation Lab from MIT to Duke University. She’s wasted no time immersing herself in the new university and volunteered for the semester’s first seminar to introduce herself and her lab’s latest work to Duke’s visualization community.

Cummings’ research over recent years has centered on the development of a smartphone interface through which, she said, anyone can learn to pilot a one-pound drone in three minutes. The technology could be a boon to the U.S. Army, which now issues smartphones to its personnel and mostly relies on cumbersome, gas-powered drones.

The lab tested the technology by asking volunteers to maneuver a drone through an obstacle course both in the field — where they learned wind and cold temperatures are not a drone’s friend — and in simulated environments.

One of the things they discovered in both cases was that individuals who performed well in a spatial reasoning test were more likely to complete the obstacle course. Moreover, these performances tended to be gendered, with men scoring higher than women in spatial reasoning. Interestingly, Cummings noted, other studies have shown women tend to perform better piloting drones in long-term, “boring” scenarios with little action.

Cummings is interested in teasing out the reasons for these results, which could have significant implications for the U.S. Army or companies one day interested in hiring drone pilots.

As Stephen Colbert confirmed, you may be able to fly a drone with three minutes’ training, but that doesn’t mean you can fly it well.

Cummings talks to a full house at the Visualization Friday Forum on January 24.

Cummings talks to a full house at the Visualization Friday Forum on January 24.

Why Meteorites Are So Hard to Find in North Carolina

by Erin Weeks

Note: This is the first in a multi-part series following Nick Gessler’s course on meteorites and the history of the solar system. Astronomy enthusiasts should check out the North Carolina Museum of History’s Astronomy Days happening this weekend, Saturday, January 25.

Visitors to Nick Gessler's lab can touch the moon -- literally -- and a whole lot of meteorites (Photo: Eric Ferreri)

Visitors to Nick Gessler’s lab can touch the moon — literally — and a whole lot of meteorites (Photo: Eric Ferreri)

A meteorite hasn’t been discovered in North Carolina in over 80 years, but Professor Nick Gessler dreams that his students will be the first to break that streak.

On the first day of his class at Duke, Gessler hauled in three tables worth of meteorites, chunks of rock and metal that hurdled through outer space for millions, even billions of years before surviving the descent into Earth’s atmosphere. Among his collection are pieces broken off from the moon, Mars and the dramatic Chelyabinsk meteorite that lit up Russia and YouTube in February 2013.

“That’s what they look like,” Gessler said, gesturing toward one table. “They’re ugly rocks.”

That’s not entirely fair. Past their melted, black crusts, most of the meteorites glint with flecks of iron. Some thin slices, when finely polished and held up to a light source, resemble stained glass. But ugly or no, the rocks have captivated human interest since people first observed them falling from the sky. Now, they’ve attracted Duke students in wide-ranging fields, from English and history to mathematics and engineering, united by a common interest in the extraterrestrial.

Gessler has a couple of theories about why North Carolina has seen a dearth of meteorite discoveries. First, farming practices have changed — farmers found many meteorites while tilling their land and dislodging the stony debris. These days, farmers rely on heavy machinery unfazed by rocks.

Second, Gessler thinks it’s possible that, despite our astronomical advances, light pollution may have clouded our chances of seeing minor meteors falling to earth.

“Maybe people just don’t look up at the sky like they used to,” he said.

Throughout this course, it seems certain his students will be looking up. Each has been assigned a North Carolina meteorite to research — they’ll ferret out old newspaper clippings and find when and where it fell, whether the land is private and what the likelihood of finding remnants now might be. Gessler will instruct them on the art and science of meteorite hunting, and eventually the students may put their skills to work in the field.

And who knows — some of them might even find the meteorites beautiful.

Supernova Explosion in M82: Exciting, but No Neutrinos

The M82 galaxy before (top) and after (bottom) its new supernova on Jan. 22 (Photo: UCL/University of London Observatory/Steve Fossey/Ben Cooke/Guy Pollack/Matthew Wilde/Thomas Wright)

The M82 galaxy before (top) and after (bottom) its new supernova on Jan. 22 (Photo: UCL/University of London Observatory/Steve Fossey/Ben Cooke/Guy Pollack/Matthew Wilde/Thomas Wright)


By Erin Weeks

In the early morning hours of January 22, the Earth turned spectator to a celestial event the likes of which hadn’t been seen in nearly three decades. The explosive death of a white dwarf star in Messier 82 (M82), a nearby galaxy, quickly ignited the astronomy world.

The supernova is exciting for a number of reasons that other outlets have well outlined — but unfortunately for Kate Scholberg, neutrinos are not one of them. Scholberg, a Duke University physics professor, studies the mysterious, nearly-massless particles at Super-K, a detector located deep in the mountains of Japan. Super-K was designed to spot neutrinos as they speed through Earth, revealing information about their sources, which can include the sun, cosmic rays, and supernovae.

“M82 is too far away for us to see any neutrinos from it,” Scholberg wrote in an email. “It’s about 11.4 million light years from us, meaning that the chance of seeing even a single neutrino from a core-collapse supernova in current detectors is probably a few percent or less (of course, we’ll look).”

Even if it were close enough, she said, this supernova doesn’t appear to be the type that generates a lot of neutrinos. White dwarves are common, dense stars whose supernovae are triggered when they consume new matter and experience runaway nuclear reactions. It takes a far more massive star to undergo core collapse, when a star’s unstable center caves in under the its own gravity.

“Core-collapse supernovae are the ones that spew neutrinos,” she wrote. “So, not much hope we’ll see anything in neutrinos, alas.”

Scholberg coordinates SNEWS, the SuperNova Early Warning System, which will sound the alarm at the first sign of a neutrino-generating supernova. SNEWS and Scholberg will have to keep waiting for the next big blast, but the white dwarf supernova in M82 is still great news for physicists who study another hot topic — dark energy.

Astronomers spotted the supernova unusually early, meaning they’ll be able to collect a wealth of data before it hits peak brightness in a couple of weeks. It may be possible then to see the supernova with just a set of binoculars.

A six-photo composite of the starburst galaxy M82 (Photo: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team [STScI/AURA])

A six-photo composite of the starburst galaxy M82 (Photo: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team [STScI/AURA])

New Course Offers Lessons from Lasering Priceless Art

Duke graduate student Tana Villafana and chief conservator at the NC Museum of Art William Brown stand over The Crucifixion (inset). (Photo: Martin Fischer)

Duke graduate student Tana Villafana and chief conservator at the NC Museum of Art William Brown stand over The Crucifixion (inset). (Photo: Martin Fischer)

By Erin Weeks

A group of chemists at Duke University has gained recognition in recent years for shooting lasers at medieval artwork — technology that allows a harmless peek at the many layers and materials in a painting and offers insight into long gone eras and artists. Now, Duke students will have the chance to learn from this pioneering work at the intersection of chemistry and art history in a new course on the science of color.

The course coincides with the publication of the first scientific measurements from the laser work, reported Jan. 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The images we have now are enormously better than a year ago,” said Warren S. Warren, head of the lab performing the imaging and the James B. Duke professor of chemistry. He and fellow Duke authors, grad student Tana Villafana and associate research professor Martin Fischer, have not only demonstrated the technology works — they’ve shown it works at an incredible level of detail, telling the difference, for example, between nearly identical pigments.

But lasering The Crucifixion by Puccio Cappano was just the start, as the team envisions countless more cultural applications of the technology. Given enough funding and manpower, they could visualize ancient scrolls of text too fragile to unroll, reveal the bright colors that once adorned Greek statues, learn the secrets of China’s terracotta warriors, and even detect the beginnings of pigment degradation in aging artwork.

There are talented people in art conservation, Warren said, whose work could benefit from more advanced technology, and there are talented people at the cutting-edge of laser science looking for meaningful ways to apply their inventions. For the past several years, Warren’s lab has brought these people together.

Now, he hopes to accomplish something similar with students at Duke. Warren, Fischer, and another chemistry instructor, Adele DeCruz, are teaming up to teach “The Molecular, Physical, and Artistic Bases of Color” in the second half of spring semester.

The class will visit the Nasher Museum of Art, the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, and possibly even the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, to learn first-hand from art conservators and working artists. Students can expect to learn about how humans have used and made pigments over the millennia; how color works at a molecular level; and the basics of how human vision, microscopes, cameras, and lasers all see or image color.

Students can register for the half course, CHM 590, until the add/drop deadline for classes on January 22. “Students should not be scared off by the course number,” Warren said. “The prerequisite is one college-level science course, and the intent is to make both the science and artistic components accessible to a broad audience.”

Funding for the research was provided by National Science Foundation grant CHE-1309017.

CITATION: “Femtosecond pump-probe microscopy generates virtual cross-sections in historic artwork.” Tana E. Villafana, William P. Brown, et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jan. 20, 2014. Doi: 10.1071/pnas.1317230111

Battling Doubt and Danger in the Amazon

Patricia Wright's interest in owl monkeys was the launchpad for her renowned career in primatology.

Patricia Wright’s interest in owl monkeys was the launchpad for her renowned career in primatology (Photo: Steven Walling)

By Erin Weeks

One night, during her routine survey of nocturnal monkeys in the Peruvian rainforest, Patricia Wright came nose to nose with a large, male jaguar. She edged slowly off the trail, but she knew the big cat was the one who would decide if she would live to see daylight. He could either jump toward or away from her, Wright says. This time, he jumped away.

Wright’s encounter with the elusive jaguar is just one of many adventures recounted in High Moon Over the Amazon, a memoir covering her early life and research on South American monkeys.

Though best known these days for her pioneering work on Madagascar’s lemurs, Wright’s path to science wasn’t always so clear. In the late 1960s, when her contemporaries were getting PhDs, Wright worked in social services before quitting to raise her daughter. The chance purchase of an owl monkey–and Wright’s insatiable curiosity about the mysterious species’ habits–set her off on a remarkable journey from hippie housewife to groundbreaking researcher.

Wright told that story last night at an event sponsored by the Duke Lemur Center, which was the first place she worked after eventually obtaining her own PhD in her 40s. She read passages about the time army ants ate through her camp’s storehouse and about the difficulties of balancing single motherhood and doctoral work. Wright’s tenacity in the face of doubt and danger kept surfacing in her talk and is something she’s said she hopes to inspire in young women interested in scientific careers.

“Not giving up is the key, and I think young women of today should know that it might not be easy, but they should not get discouraged, because in the long run the struggle is worth it,” she said in an interview with NPR.

Patricia Wright

Dr. Patricia Wright (Photo: Noel Rowe)


Not Your Mama's Chem Lab

By Erin Weeks

Deep in the basement of French Family Science Center, eleven chemistry 210 students are completing one of their last labs of the semester. Bob Marley plays from a speaker in the ceiling, and the students are huddled around their computer screens, watching lines plot on a rainbow-colored graph.

It looks like an average lab session—but believe it or not, the students are engaged in cutting-edge energy science.

The students worked with cobaloxomine, shown here, and a variety of colored cobalt complexes in the lab.

The students worked with cobaloxime, shown here, and a variety of colored cobalt complexes in the lab (Courtesy Wikimedia).

While undergraduates can still expect to learn the techniques and concepts familiar to introductory chemistry classes everywhere, Duke’s chemistry department recently revamped the laboratory portion of CHEM 210, Modern Applications of Chemical Principles, with the help of a mini grant from Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. Now students learn through the lens of one of modern chemistry’s biggest challenges: energy.

Associate chair and professor Kathy Franz says the department wanted students to be able to tie their laboratory work to real-world chemistry problems—like converting sunlight into usable fuel.

“Researchers around the world are working on each step needed to close the loop of artificial photosynthesis and link it to fuel cell use,” the lab manual reads. “There are still basic chemical questions yet to be answered about that deceptively simple-looking equation” that describes photosynthesis.

Some of those top researchers, including Dan Nocera and his lab at Harvard, use cobalt-based catalysts in their efforts to streamline artificial photosynthesis—and now, so do chemistry students at Duke. The lab today tasks students with building their very own simple cobalt catalysts to perform half of the artificial photosynthesis equation.

Just like professional chemists, the students face technical frustrations and rewards. Lab manager Deborah McCarthy rushes around the room with a sharp eye, correcting missteps. One group forgot to add eosin Y, a reddish dye, to their solution. Another group fails to dissolve their cobalt complex in acetone, and yet another skimped on the NAD+. But on second and third tries, when everything goes right, the students’ rainbow graphs spike perfectly, signaling their success—they’ve produced NADH, a form of stored energy used in living cells.

5 Dukies On List of World’s Top Biomedical Scientists

A recent paper in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation identified 400 of the world’s most influential researchers in biomedicine—and five hail from Duke University. The authors used citation data spanning 15 years (1996-2011) from Scopus, a database of peer-reviewed literature, to pinpoint researchers with high degrees of productivity and impact. Get to know the Duke researchers:



Robert M. Califf is a global leader in treating cardiovascular disease and has a long history at Duke, where he completed both his undergraduate degree and his MD.  Califf serves as vice chancellor for clinical and translational research and directs the Duke Translational Medicine Institute. You can read Dr. Califf’s blog here.




Marc G. Caron is the James B. Duke Professor of Cell Biology in the School of Medicine, as well as a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. He studies how neurotransmitters, chemical messengers like dopamine and serotonin, regulate behavior and play a role in diseases like schizophrenia and depression.




Robert J. Lefkowitz was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work discovering and describing a large family of proteins, known as the G-protein coupled receptors, that regulate cellular responses to outside molecules. His work underlies a third to a half of all prescription drugs today. Lefkowitz is a professor of biochemistry, chemistry, medicine, and pathology at Duke.




Terrie E. Moffitt is a psychologist and the director of two longitudinal studies—one of 1000 New Zealand families and one of over 1000 British families with twins, which she uses to investigate how antisocial and criminal behaviors arise in individuals. She is the Nannerl O. Keohane university professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke.




Eric D. Peterson is a cardiologist specializing in acute coronary systems and geriatric cardiology with nearly 700 peer-reviewed biomedical papers to his credit. He is the director of the Duke Clinical Research Institute and a professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center.

Teaching Young Scientists the Elements of Design

by Erin Weeks

Ten visiting undergraduate researchers spent the summer sharpening their science communication skills at Duke. They came from around the country to chemistry and engineering labs to participate in a National Science Foundation program called Chemistry and Applications of Smart Molecules and Materials and to learn the principles of ‘molecule-to-material’ research.

While the students spent most of their days in the lab, they were also tasked with creating a visual representation to explain some aspect of their summer research—once at the beginning of the summer, and once again at the end, after feedback and instruction on the basics of good visual design. The process was designed to help the students understand their research, their roles as scientists, and the importance of science communication.

“You want to catch peoples’ eye, but you want to be fairly simple and easy to interpret,” said chemistry professor and department chair Stephen Craig. Craig and project co-leader, associate chemistry professor Kathy Franz, discussed their project at a visualization seminar series last week (Nov 1).

As for the visual don’ts, Craig advised the students to skip abstract art and avoid anything flashy or over the top. In addition to the images, the students practiced explaining their research in strictly timed three-minute talks.

“We wanted them to give that elevator pitch, that three-minute pitch,” said Franz, so that the students would be able to “communicate to their peers what their project for the summer was going to be.”

Duke professor Jane Richardson first visualized protein as ribbon-like (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Duke professor Jane Richardson first visualized protein as ribbon-like (Courtesy Wikimedia)

When Franz was a student, she was never trained how to make her research graphics clear and intelligible. But as a chemist, she knew the significance of effective visuals. Take, for example, the structure of proteins, which were first visualized as ribbon-like in 1980 by Duke biochemist Jane Richardson. These days, Franz said, she and generations of biology students only picture protein as a ribbon.

“The way people represent scientific results changes the way we imagine it,” Franz said.

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