Research Blog

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

Author: Guest Post Page 1 of 5

Students Dance Their Way Out of “AI Bias”

Martin Brooke is no ordinary Engineering professor at Duke University. He teaches computer scientists, engineers, and technology nerds how to dance.

Brooke co-teaches Performance and Technology, an interactive course where students create performance projects and discuss theoretical and historical implications of technologies in performance. In a unique partnership with Thomas DeFrantz, a professor of African and African American Studies and Dance students will design a technology based on “heart,” for example, in order to understand how human expression is embedded in technology. Two weeks later, they’ll interact with motion-sensing, robotic trees that give hugs; and 3D printed hearts that detect colors and match people, sort of like a robotic tinder.

Thomas DeFrantz (left) and Martin Brooke  watch their students perform in the Performance and Technology course .

Brooke loves that this class is fun and interactive, but more importantly he loves that this class teaches students how to consider people’s emotions, facial expressions, cultural differences, cultural similarities and interactions when designing new technologies.

Human interface is when a computerized program or device takes input from humans — like an image of a face — and gives an output — like unlocking a phone. In order for these devices to understand human interface, the programmer must first understand how humans express themselves. This means that scientists, programmers, and engineers need to understand a particular school of learning: the humanities. “There are very, very few scientists who do human interface research,” Brooke said.

The students designed a robotic “Tinder” that changes colors when it detects a match.

Brooke also mentioned the importance of understanding human expressions and interactions in order to limit computer bias. Computer bias occurs when a programmer’s prejudiced opinions of others are transferred into the computer products they design. For example, many recent studies have proven that facial recognition software inaccurately identifies black individuals when searching for suspects of a criminal case.

“It turns out one of the biggest problems with technology today is human interface,” Brooke said. “Microsoft found out that they had a motion sensitive Artificial Intelligence that tended to say women, [more often than men], were angry.”  Brooke said he didn’t consider the importance of incorporating the arts and humanities into engineering before coming to Duke. He suggested that it can be uncomfortable for some scientists to think and express themselves artistically. “[When] technologists [take Performance and Technology], for example, they are terrified of the performance aspects of it. We have some video of a guy saying, ‘I didn’t realize I was going to have to perform.’ Yeah, that’s what we were actually quite worried about, but in the end, he’s there in the video, doing slow motion running on stage — fully involved, actually performing, and really enjoying it.

Duke has a strong initiative to promote arts and humanities inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Brooke plans to bring Bass Connections, a research program that focuses on public outreach and cross-disciplinary work, to his Performance and Technology class before the end of the semester to demonstrate bias through a program he calls AI Bias In the Age of a Technical Elite.  

“You give it someone’s name and it will come up with a movie title, their role, and a synopsis of the movie,” Brooke said. “When I put in my name, which is an English name, it said that the movie I would be in is about a little boy who lives in the English countryside who turns into a monster and terrorizes the town.” This program shows even something as simple as a name can have so much stigma attached to it.

Bass Connections Students working on technology and engineering projects. (From the official Duke page for Bass Connections.)

Brooke’s hope is that his class teaches students to think about technology and human interface. “Hopefully that’s a real benefit to them when they get out actually designing products.”

Guest post by Jordan Anderson, a masters student in Science & Society

For Lemurs, Water Holes Are a Matter of Taste

It’s 1 PM and you’re only halfway through a 6-hour hike, climbing in steep terrain under a 100° cloudless sky. Your water bottle is nearly empty, and you’ve heard the worst of this hike is yet to come.

And then, just as you are making peace with the fact that you may collapse from dehydration at any second, you approach a small river. The germaphobe side of your brain is shouting for you not to drink from that. The dehydrated animal in you, however, is seriously considering it.

What do you do?

That is the question that Dr. Caroline Amoroso and her collaborators from Duke’s department of evolutionary anthropology, set out to answer. With a slight difference: rather than unprepared hikers, they asked that question to red-fronted lemurs in Madagascar.

Although we often associate Madagascar with lush forests, some regions have a very marked dry season during which water becomes a limited resource. Water holes are few and far apart.

A red-fronted lemur in Kirindy Forest, Madagascar, tanks up at a watering hole. (Photo: Caroline Amoroso)

“On my first visit to Kirindy forest I was amazed at how these waterholes – which are essentially just puddles of standing water – serve as a source of life for so many animals,” says Amoroso.

However, with animals, comes poop. Throughout the season, these water holes quickly become contaminated with fecal matter from all the mammals, birds and reptiles that come have a drink. Amoroso says that fecal contamination was easily detectable even to human observers. “Approaching some waterholes I could tell that lemurs had been there recently because their droppings left such a smell!”

By experimentally manipulating water quality, following groups of radio-collared lemurs and observing lemur behavior at natural water holes, Amoroso and her team found that, all else being equal, lemurs prefer to drink clean water.

Indeed, when offered the choice between a bucket of clean water and a bucket of water containing lemur feces that had been disinfected by boiling, to kill all possible pathogens, lemurs virtually always drank from the clean water bucket. When the buckets were removed and lemurs had to go visit natural water holes, however, they prioritized water holes closer to their resting site, even if they were more contaminated than further ones. Proximity was more important than cleanliness, but if multiple water holes were at similar distances, then lemurs seem to choose the least-contaminated source.

“I was surprised to find evidence that the lemurs chose natural waterholes with lower levels of fecal contamination,” says Amoroso. “I thought that [in a natural setting] avoidance of fecal contamination would be relatively low on the lemurs’ list of priorities.”

After some watchful waiting for predators, and a discussion perhaps, a quartet of Kirindy lemurs visits a tiny watering hole. (Photo: Caroline Amoroso)

The authors highlight that many other factors can influence a lemur’s choice of water hole, such as exposure to potential predators or visits by competing groups. Indeed, Amoroso says that drinking water can be a very risky business for lemurs: “Lemurs would spend upwards of thirty minutes scanning the vegetation nervously and making sure there was no sign of predators before approaching the waterhole and drinking.”

Lemurs prefer clean water, unless it’s too much trouble. In that hike you were on? Lemurs would definitely drink from the river.

Guest Post by Marie Claire Chelini, a postdoctoral fellow in evolutionary anthropology.

Teens Have the Feels About Their Family’s Standing

A study of British twins appearing this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that an adolescent’s sense of their own family’s social and economic standing is closely linked to that child’s physical and cognitive health.

In fact, the adolescent’s perception of status was a more powerful predictor of their well-being and readiness for further education than their family’s actual status. The study sample represented the full range of socioeconomic conditions in the U.K.

“Testing how young people’s perceptions related to well-being among twins provided a rare opportunity to control for poverty status as well as environmental and genetic factors shared by children within the same family,” said lead author Joshua Rivenbark, an MD/PhD student in Duke’s Medical School and Sanford School of Public Policy.

Joshua Rivenbark is an MD/PhD student in medicine and policy

“Siblings grew up with equal access to objective resources, but many differed in where they placed their family on the social ladder – which then signaled how well each twin was doing,” Rivenbark said.

Researchers followed 2,232 same-sex twins born in England and Wales in 1994-95 who were part of the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study based at King’s College London. Adolescents assessed their family’s social ranking at ages 12 and 18. By late adolescence, these beliefs signaled how well the teen was doing, independent of the family’s access to financial resources, healthcare, adequate nutrition and educational opportunities. This pattern was not seen at age 12.

“The amount of financial resources children have access to is one of the most reliable predictors of their health and life chances,” said Candice Odgers, a professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine, who is the senior author of the report. “But these findings show that how young people see their family’s place in a hierarchical system also matters. Their perceptions of social status were an equally good, and often stronger, indicator of how well they were going to do with respect to mental health and social outcomes.”

Study findings also showed that despite growing up in the same family, the twins’ views were not always identical. By age 18, the twin who rated the family’s standing as higher was less likely to be convicted of a crime; was more often educated, employed or in training; and had fewer mental health problems than his or her sibling.

“Studies that experimentally manipulate how young people see their social position would be needed to sort out cause from effect,” Rivenbark said.

The E-Risk study was founded and is co-directed by Duke professors Avshalom Caspi and Terrie Moffitt at King’s College London.

Guest Post by Pat Harriman, UC-Irvine News @UCIPat

Inventing New Ways to Do Brain Surgery

This is the sixth and final 2019 post written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.

Dr. Patrick Codd is the Director of the Duke Brain Tool Laboratory and an Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at Duke. Working as a neurosurgeon and helping with the research and development of various neurosurgical devices is “a delicate balance,” he said.

Patrick Codd

Codd currently runs a minimally invasive neurosurgery group. However, at Massachusetts General Hospital, he used to run the trauma section. When asked about which role was more stressful, he stated “they were both pretty stressful” but for different reasons. At Mass General, he was on call for most hours of the day and had to pull long shifts in the operating room. At Duke, he has to juggle surgery, teaching, and research and the development of new technology.

“I didn’t know I was going to be a neurosurgeon until I was in college,” Codd said. Despite all of the interesting specialties he learned about in medical school, he said “it was always neurosurgery that brought me back.”

Currently, he is exclusively conducting cranial surgery.

 Neurosurgeon U.S. Air Force Maj Jonathan Forbes,looks through loupes as he performs brain surgery at the Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, Oct. 10, 2014. 

Though Dr. Codd has earned many leadership positions in his career, he said he was never focused on advancement. He simply enjoys working on topics which he loves, such as improving minimally invasive surgical techniques. But being in leadership lets him unite other people who are interested in working towards a common goal in research and development. He has been able to skillfully bring people together from various specialties and help guide them. However, it is difficult to meet everyone’s needs all of the time. What is important for him is to be a leader when he needs to be.

Dr. Codd said there are typically five to eight research papers necessary in to lay the groundwork for every device that is developed. However, some technologies are based on the development of a single paper. He has worked on devices that make surgery more efficient and less minimally invasive and those that help the surgical team work together better. When developing technologies, he tries to keep the original purpose of the devices the same. However, many revisions are made to the initial design plans as requirements from the FDA and other institutions must be met. Ironically, Dr. Codd can’t use the devices he develops in his own operating room because it would be a conflict of interest. Typically other neurosurgeons from across the country will use them instead.

Post by Andrew Bahhouth, NCSSM 2020

Working Through Frustrations to Understand Nature Better

This is the fifth of six posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.

Research is a journey full of uncertainty in which scientists have to construct their own path, even if they’re unsure of what the end of the journey actually is. Despite this unpredictability, researchers continue their journey because they believe their work will one day drive their fields forward. At least, that’s why Kate Meyer Ph.D. says she has investigated something called m6A for several years.

Kathryn Meyer, Ph.D.

“Virtually every study that I have ever been part of had some frustrations involved because everything can fall apart in just one night,” Meyer said. “Despite all the frustrations you might have, you are still in the research because you know that at the end of the day, you will get new knowledge that is worthy to your field, or perhaps to the world.”

N6-methyladenosine (or m6A) is a modification to one of the four main bases of RNA – adenosine. Because RNA plays a significant role as a bridge between genetic information and functional gene products, modifications in RNA can alter how much of a certain product will be produced, which then controls how our cells and eventually our whole body functions.

The idea of this tiny but powerful modification was first proposed in the 1970s. But scientists struggled to find where m6A was located in the cell before research Meyer made a major contribution to as a trainee was published in 2012. Combining a newly developed antibody that could recognize m6A and gene sequencing techniques that became more accessible to the researchers, Meyer’s work led to the first method that can detect and sequence all of the m6A regions in a cell.

m6A’s interaction with a neuron, as depicted on Dr. Meyer’s laboratory site.

Meyer’s work was transformative research. Her method allowed laboratories around the world to investigate what regulates m6A and what its consequences are. Meyer said this first study which ignited m6A field is one of her most prideful moments as a researcher. 

Significant progress has been made since 2012, but there are still lots of questions that need to be answered. Currently, Meyer’s research team is investigating the relationships between m6A and various neurological issues. She believes that regulation of m6A controls the expression, or activity level, of various genes in the brain. As such, m6A may play an important role in neurodegenerative diseases and memory.

Author Jun Hee Shin, left, and Kate Meyer in her lab.

As an assistant professor of both biochemistry and neurobiology at Duke, Meyer is definitely one of the most important figures in the m6A field. Despite her many accomplishments, she said she had experienced and overcome many frustrations and failures on her way to the results.

Guest Post by Jun Shin, NCSSM 2020

Infants, Immunity, Infections and Immunization

This is the fourth of several posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.

Dr. Giny Fouda’s research focuses on infant immune responses to infection and vaccination.

Her curiosity about immunology arose during her fourth year of medical school in Cameroon, when she randomly picked up a book on cancer immunotherapy and was captivated. Until then, she conducted research on malaria and connected it to her interest in pediatrics by studying the effects of the parasitic disease on the placentas of mothers.

Genevieve Giny Fouda M.D., Ph.D.

As a postdoctoral fellow at Duke, she then linked pediatrics and immunology to begin examining mother to child transmission of disease and immunity.

Today she is an M.D. and a Ph.D. and a member of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute. She’s an assistant professor in pediatrics and an assistant research professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke University School of Medicine.

Based on the recent finding that children of HIV-positive mothers are more susceptible to inheriting the disease, Fouda believes that it is important to understand how to intervene in passive immunity transmissions in order to limit them. Children and adults recover from diseases differently and uncovering these differences is important for vaccine development.

This area of research is personally important to her, because she learned from her service in health campaigns in Central Africa that it is much easier to prevent disease than to treat.

Babies!

However, she believes that it is important to recognize that research is a collaborative experience with a team of scientists. Each discovery is not that of an individual, but can be accredited to everyone’s contribution, especially those whose roles may seem small but are vital to the everyday operations of the lab.

At the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, Fouda enjoys collaborating as a team and contributing her time as a mentor and trainer of young scientists in the next generation.

Outside of the lab, Fouda likes to spend time reading books with her daughter, traveling, decorating and gardening. If there was one factor that improve how science in immunology is conducted, she would stress that preventing disease is significantly cheaper than treating those that become infected by it.

Dr. Fouda has made some remarkable progress in the field of disease treatment with her hard working and optimistic personality, and I know that she will continue to excel in her objectives for years to come.

Post by Vandanaa Jayaprakash NCSSM 2020

Games, Art, and New Frontiers

This is the third of several posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.

Beneath Duke University’s Perkins library, an unassuming, yet fiercely original approach to video games research is underway. Tied less to computer science and engineering than you might expect, the students and faculty are studying games for their effects on players.

I was introduced to a graduate researcher who has turned a game into an experiment. His work exists between the humanities, psychology, and computer science. Some games, particularly modern ones, feature complex economies that require players to collaborate as often as they compete. These researchers have adapted that property to create an economics game in which participants anonymously affect the opportunities – and setbacks – of other players. Wealth inequality is built in. The players’ behavior, they hope, will inform them about ‘real-world’ economic decisions.

Shai Ginsburg playing

At the intersection of this interdisciplinary effort with games, I met  Shai Ginsburg, an associate professor in the department of Asian and Middle Eastern studies who studies video games and board games the way other humanities professors might study Beowulf.

For example, he is able to divide human history into eras of games rather than of geopolitics.

“Until recently, games were not all that interactive,” he says. “Video games are, obviously, interactive, but board games have evolved, too, over the same period of time.” This shift is compelling because it offers us new freedoms in the way we express human experience.

A new gaming suite at Lawrence Tech University in Southfield, Mich. (LTU/Matt Roush)

“The fusion of storytelling and interactivity in games is very compelling,” Ginsburg says. “We haven’t seen that many games that handle issues like mental illness,” until more recently, he points out. The degree of interactivity in a video game grants a player a closeness to the narrative in the areas where writing, music, and visual art alone would be restricted. This closeness gives game designers – as artists – the freedom to explore themes where those artistic restrictions also hinder communication.

However, Dr. Ginsburg is not a game historian; the time that a game feature evolved is far less relevant to him than how its parent game affects players. “We tend to focus on the texts that interest us in a literature class,” he says, by way of example. He studies the games that interest him for the play opportunities they provide.

One advantage of using games as a medium to study their effects on people is that, “the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow is not yet there,” Ginsburg says. In painting, writing, and plenty of other mediums, a clear distinction between “good” and “bad” is decided simultaneously by communities of critics and consumers. Not so, in the case of games.

“I look at communities as a measure of the effectivity of the game less than for itself,” Ginsburg notes. “I think the question is ‘how was I reacting?’ and ‘why was I reacting in such a way?’” he says. Ginsburg’s effort seeks to reveal the mechanisms that give games their societal impact, though those impacts can be elusive. How to learn more? “Play lots of games. Play different kinds of games. Play more games.”

Guest Post by Jackson Meade, NCSSM 2020

Sharing is Caring, But How Does it Start?

This is the second of several posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.

As an occasional volunteer at a local children’s museum, I can tell you that children take many different approaches to sharing. Some will happily lend others their favorite toys, while others will burst into tears at the suggestion of giving others a turn in an exhibit.

For Rita Svetlova Ph.D. at the Duke Empathy Development Lab, these behaviors aren’t just passing observations, they are her primary scientific focus. In November, I sat down with Dr. Svetlova to discuss her current research, past investigations, and future plans.

Margarita Lvovna Svetlova

Originally from Russia, Svetlova obtained an M.A. from Lomonosov Moscow State University in Moscow before earning her Ph.D in developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. She later worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Now at Duke University as an assistant research professor of psychology and neuroscience and the principal investigator in the Empathy Development Lab, Svetlova looks at the development of ‘prosocial’ behavior in children — behaviors such as sharing, empathy, and teamwork.

Svetlova credits her mentor at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Celia Brownell, for inspiring her to pursue child psychology and development. “I’ve always been interested in prosociality, but when I was in Russia I actually studied linguistics,” she says. “When I moved to the U.S., I changed paths partly because I’ve always wanted to know more about human psychology. The reason I started studying children is partly because I was interested in it and partly because I met Dr. Brownell. I branched out a little bit, but I generally found it interesting.”

An unsuccessful sharing experience. (From Awkward Family Photos)

Although her passion for childhood development research began in Pittsburgh,  Svetlova has embraced her role as a Duke researcher, most recently tackling a scenario that most academically-inclined readers are familiar with — a partner’s failure to perform in a joint-commitment — in a co-authored May 2017 paper titled “Three-Year-Olds’ Reactions to a Partner’s Failure to Perform Her Role in a Joint Commitment.”

In the study, 144 three-year-olds were presented with a common joint commitment scenario: playing a game. For one third of the children, the game ended when their partner defected, while another third of the test group had a partner who didn’t know how to play.  The final third of the group saw the game apparatus break. Svetlova looked at how the children’s reactions varied by scenario: protesting defectors, teaching the ignorant partner, and blaming the broken apparatus. The results seem to suggest that three-year-olds have the ability to evaluate intentions in a joint commitment.

Another paper Svetlova co-authored, titled “Three- and 5-Year-Old Childrens’ Understanding of How to Dissolve a Joint Commitment,” compared the reactions of three- and five-year-olds when a puppet left a collaborative game with either permission, prior notification, or suddenly without prior notification. If the puppet left without warning, three-year-old subjects protested more and waited longer for the puppet’s return, but both age groups seemed to understand the agreement implicit in a joint commitment.

These joint commitments are only a small fraction of the questions that Svetlova hopes to address.

“A longitudinal study of prosociality would be amazing,” she says. “What I’m interested in now is the intersection of fairness understanding and in-group/out-group bias. What I am trying to look into is how children understand their in-group members vs. out-group members and whether there’s something we can do to make them more accepting of their out-group members.”

“Another one I am interested in is the neural basis of empathy and prosocial behavior. I haven’t started yet, but I’m planning a couple of studies on looking into the brain mechanisms of empathy in particular,” Svetolova says. “We plan to scan children and adults while experiencing an emotion themselves and compare that brain activation to the brain activation while witnessing someone experiencing an emotion, the question being ‘do we really feel others’ emotions as our own?’”

Svetlova also expressed her interest in the roles that gender, culture, and upbringing play in a child’s development of prosociality.

I had to ask her why teenagers seemed to “regress” in prosociality, seemingly becoming more selfish when compared to their childhood selves.

“I would distinguish between self-centered and selfish,” she assured me. “You are not necessarily selfish, it’s just that during teenagehood you are looking for your place in the world, in the ‘pack.’ That’s why these things become very important, other’s opinions about you and your reputation in this little group, people become very anxious about it, it doesn’t mean that they become selfish all of a sudden or stop being prosocial.” She added, “I believe in the good in people, including teenagers.”

Guest Post by Sellers Hill, NCSSM 2020

How Do You Engineer a Microbial Community?

This is the first of several posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.

Claudia Gunsch, the Theodore Kennedy distinguished associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering, wants to know how to engineer a microbial community. An environmental engineer with a fascination for the world at the micro level, Gunsch takes a unique approach to solving the problem of environmental pollution: She looks to what’s already been done by nature.

Claudia Gunsch, Ph.D.

Gunsch and her team seek to harness the power of microbes to create living communities capable of degrading contamination in the environment.

“How can you engineer that microbial community so the organisms that degrade the pollutant become enriched?” she asks. “Or — if you’re thinking about dangerous pathogenic organisms — how do you engineer the microbial community so that those organisms become depressed in that particular environment?”

The first step, Gunsch says, is to figure out who’s there. What microbes make up a community? How do these organisms function? Who is doing what? Which organisms are interchangeable? Which prefer to live with one another, and which prefer not living with one another?

“Once we can really start building that kind of framework,” she says, “we can start engineering it for our particular purposes.”

Yet identifying the members of a microbial community is far more difficult than it may seem. Shallow databases coupled with vast variations in microbial communities leave Gunsch and her team with quite a challenge. Gunsch, however, remains optimistic.

Map of U.S. Superfund Sites (2013)

“The exciting part is that we have all these technologies where we can sequence all these samples,” she says. “As we become more sophisticated and more people do this type of research, we keep feeding all of this data into these databases. Then we will have more information and one day, we’ll be able to go out and take that sample and know exactly who’s there.”

“Right now, it’s in its infancy,” she says with a smile. “But in the long-term, I have no doubt we will get there.”

Gunsch is currently working on Duke’s Superfund Research Center designing bioremediation technologies for the degradation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) contamination. These pollutants are extremely difficult to break down due to their tendency to stick strongly onto soil and sediments. Gunsch and her team are searching for the right microbial community to break these compounds down — all by taking advantage of the innate capabilities of these microorganisms.

A photo montage from Dr. Gunsch’s lab page.

Step one, Gunsch says, has already been completed. She and her team have identified several different organisms capable of degrading PAHs. The next step, she explains, is assembling the microbial communities — taking these organisms and getting them to work together, sometimes even across kingdoms of life. Teamwork at the micro level.

The subsequent challenge, then, is figuring out how these organisms will survive and thrive in the environment they’re placed in, and which microbial seeds will best degrade the contamination when placed in the environment. This technique is known as “precision bioremediation” — similar to precision medicine, it involves finding the right solution in the right amounts to be the most effective in a certain scenario.

“In this particular case, we’re trying to figure out what the right cocktail of microbes we can add to an environment that will lead to the end result that is desired — in this case, PAH degradation,” Gunsch says.

Ultimately, the aim is to reduce pollution and restore ecological health to contaminated environments. A lofty goal, but one within sight. Yet Gunsch sees applications beyond work in the environment — all work dealing with microbes, she says, has the potential to be impacted by this research.

“If we understand how these organisms work together,” she says, “then we can advance our understanding of human health microbiomes as well.”

Post by Emily Yang, NCSSM 2021

Stalking Elusive Ferns Down Under

Graduate student Karla Sosa (left) photographs and presses newly collected ferns for later analysis while Ashley Field (in truck) marks the GPS location of the find.

In Queensland, Australia, early March can be 96 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere, but that’s still pretty hot.

Although hot, dry Australia probably isn’t the first place you’d think to look for ferns, that’s precisely why I’m here and the sole reason we’ve hit the road at 6 a.m. Our schedule for the day: to drive as far south as we can while still letting us come home at the end of the day.

My local colleague, Ashley Field, grew up just the next town over. A skinny, speedy man, he works at James Cook University in Cairns and knows most of northern Queensland like the back of his hand.

Cairns is on the coast at the upper right, where the little green airplane is.

The ferns I’m looking for today are interesting because some species can move from their original home in Australia to the tiny islands in the Pacific. But some cannot. Why? Understanding what makes them different could prove useful in making our crops more resilient to harsh weather, or preventing weeds from spreading.

We’ve been driving for four hours before we turn off onto a dirt road. If you haven’t been to Australia, it’s worth noting that four hours here is unlike any four hours I’ve experienced before. The roads are fairly empty, flat, and straight, meaning you can cover a lot of terrain. Australia is also incredibly big and most of the time you’re travelling through unpopulated landscapes. While it may be only four hours, your mind feels the weight of the distance.

Here’s the one they were looking for!
Cheilanthes tenuifolia with lots of little spore babies on the undersides of its leaves.

The dirt road begins to climb into the mountains. We are leaving behind low scrub and big granite rocks that sit on the flat terrain. Ashley knows where we can find the ferns I’m looking for, but he’s never driven this road before. Instead, we’re trusting researchers who came before us. When they explored this area, they took samples of plants that were preserved and stored in museums and universities. By reviewing the carefully labelled collections at these institutions, we can know which places to revisit in hopes of finding the ferns.

Often, however, having been collected before there was GPS, the location information on these samples is not very precise, or the plants may no longer live there, or maybe that area got turned into a parking lot, as happened to me in New Zealand. So, despite careful planning, you may drive five hours one way to come up empty handed.

As we move higher up the mountain, the soil turns redder and sparse eucalyptus forests begin to enclose us. We locate the previous collections coordinates, an area that seems suitable for ferns to grow. We park the truck on the side of the road and get out to look.

We comb 300 feet along the side of the road because these ferns like the edges of forest, and we find nothing. But as we trudge back to the truck, I spot one meager fern hiding behind a creeping vine! It’s high up off the road-cut and I try to scramble up but only manage to pull a muscle in my arm. Ashley is taller, so he climbs partway up a tree and manages to fetch the fern. It’s not the healthiest, only 6 inches tall for a plant that usually grows at least 12 to 14 inches. It’s also not fertile, making it less useful for research, and in pulling it out of the ground, Ashley broke one of its three leaves off. But it’s better than nothing!

This delicate beauty has no name yet. Karla has to compare it to other ferns in the area to know whether it’s just an odd-looking variant or possibly … a new species!

Ashley excels at being a field botanist because he is not one to give up. “We should keep looking,” he says despite the sweat dripping down our faces.

We pile back in and continue up the road. And who could have predicted that just around the bend we would find dozens of tall, healthy looking ferns! There are easily fifty or so plants, each a deep green, the tallest around 12 inches. Many others are at earlier stages of growth, which can be very helpful for scientists in understanding how plants develop. We take four or five plants, enough to leave a sample at the university in Cairns and for the rest to be shipped back to the US. One sample will be kept at Duke, and the others will be distributed amongst other museums and universities as a type of insurance.

The long hours, the uncertainty, and the harsh conditions become small things when you hit a jackpot like this. Plus, being out in remote wilderness has its own soothing charm, and chance also often allows us to spot cool animals, like the frilled lizard and wallaby we saw on this trip.

Funding for this type of fieldwork is becoming increasingly rare, so I am grateful to the National Geographic Society for seeing the value in this work and funding my three-week expedition. I was able to cover about 400 miles of Australia from north to south, visiting twenty-four different sites, including eight parks, and ranging from lush rainforest to dry, rocky scrub. We collected fifty-five samples, including some that may be new species, and took careful notes and photographs of how these plants grow in the wild, something you can’t tell from dried-up specimens.

Knowing what species are out there and how they exist within the environment is important not only because it may provide solutions to human problems, but also because understanding what biodiversity we have can help us take better care of it in the future.

Guest Post by graduate student Karla Sosa

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