After a three-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Duke’s student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) returned to the Carolinas in-person gathering. And they were in it to win it, taking home awards in four out of the five events in which they competed.
Duke sent seven Duke undergraduates to the symposium, which was hosted by The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina: Leo Lee, Harrison Kendall, Arthur Tsang, Hana Thibault, Anya Dias-Hawkins, Sarah Bailey and Grace Lee.
When not going for gold, the students also attended business meetings and professional workshops related to the civil engineering profession.
Duke ASCE students also enjoyed networking with peers for the first time in years, meeting chapter members from other schools such as North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, North Carolina State University, The Citadel, Horry Georgetown Technical College, and Clemson University.
But when the lights came up, the gloves came off, and Duke’s students faced off against their peers in five competitions. Sophomore Anya Dias-Hawkins and junior Sarah Bailey earned third place for their efforts in the Geotechnical competition, where students were tasked with a real-life geotechnical design problem.
Juniors Grace Lee and Leo Lee along with senior Arthur Tsang won first place for their design in the Lightest Bridge competition, where popsicle bridges had to withstand a weight of 200 lbs.
Sophomores Anya Dias-Hawkins, Harrison Kendall and Hana Thibault also took home first place honors in the Freshmore competition, where students were tasked with designing an imaginary city. Lastly, Harrison Kendall won an individual award for his paper and presentation in the Daniel W. Mead Paper competition.
Duke ASCE is extremely excited to continue their efforts at the Carolinas symposium next year and hopes to send many more competitors. The group plans to compete in larger competitions such as Concrete Canoe next year at UNC Charlotte. With enough preparation, the students hope to advance to the national conference in 2024.
If you asked my eight-year-old self what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer would have been, resoundingly, “an inventor!” It was around this time that I also decided, with surprising assuredness for a shy second grader, that I would one day build a saltwater-powered car.
I must have heard the idea somewhere, although to this day I don’t quite recall where. Perhaps it was a story on the radio. NPR was a constant background noise in the basement where I spent countless hours playing and tinkering alongside my father in his hobby shop. Or maybe it was buried somewhere in a book or science magazine. They were often stacked in neat piles, filling bookcases in many corners of our house. It also could have floated across the dinner table in conversations between my parents and older siblings. Everyday talk of high school biology and current events seemed light years out of the grasp of my eight-year-old brain.
Regardless of where it came from, the idea stuck. Before I knew what it meant to conduct research or study engineering, I found myself charmed by novel ideas and drawn to the possibility of discovery. For some reason, this “car that runs on salt water” took shelter in my mind and secured itself as the perfect idea: an ingenious invention that was good for the planet. At the time, of course, I never thought about how this whimsical, far-fetched idea was fundamentally tied to my core interests and values. Now, however, as a 21-year-old senior studying mechanical engineering, passionate about renewable energy technology and protecting the planet, it all makes perfect sense.
My interest in engineering is, at its core, a love for creativity, combined with a desire to solve problems. A fondness for physics certainly helps too, but that came much later. As a child, the desire to practice creativity manifested primarily as a love for art. Some of my earliest childhood memories are toiling away at my little table in the corner of the living room, carefully sorting the crayons in my tin Crayola box. Today, I practice creativity in my critical thinking, brainstorming, and implementation of the iterative design process.
The other facet that drew me towards engineering, the desire to solve problems, evolved from an early love for nature and a passion for environmentalism. I remember seeing my grandparents’ devastated home in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and the noticeable decline in pollinators to my mother’s garden. In high school, when I heard the term “environmental engineering,” it was the first time I realized such a field existed. I immediately felt the various pieces of my interests and values click together. There are many ways to be creative and to solve problems, but for me, the combination led down a path towards pursuing engineering.
Despite the way I’ve laid it out, this is not to say there was a linear path between latching onto an eccentric notion as an eight-year-old, and deciding to pursue my current career as a soon-to-be graduate. Looking back now, I can see the symbolism in this cornerstone of an idea. With hindsight, I recognize why it appealed to different facets of my just-blossoming identity, and the ways in which I returned to it over the next several years. However, this is what is bound to happen when you expose yourself to as many new ideas as possible: one (at least) will catch your attention. The point is not to latch onto the first idea you stumble upon and pursue it relentlessly. The point is to keep an open mind to all ideas – and pay careful attention to the ones that light up inside your brain. The ones that stick in the back of your mind, and continuously pop up at unsuspecting times.
One of my favorite serendipitous moments in life is when, soon after learning something new, that newfound idea pops up somewhere else. It’s like receiving an unexpected gift in the form of previously inaccessible appreciation. Imagine turning over a stone and happening to uncover an insect that you just spent all night studying. It feels purely by chance, but it’s not quite.
The more you expose yourself to new ideas, the more they will appear. You never know when a story you stumble across by accident will move you to action, or lead to something bigger. A magazine I stumbled across by chance led to a research topic of an entire semester. A book I read in high school came up in an interview I had last week. An idea I heard at eight years old about an eco-friendly car perhaps started a life-long captivation with science that led me to become an engineer. Our life is made up of decisions that are based on millions of data points, determined by our history, background, and the types of ideas we surround ourselves with daily.
As a blogger for the Duke Research Blog, my goal is to make it easier for more people to have more exposure to more ideas. Each new idea has the potential to build bridges, whether expanding to new fields, or building upon an existing network of knowledge. Expanding our realm of understanding allows for challenging perspectives and broadening understandings. These are not ideas for the sake of ideas, but for the larger goal of enabling meaningful connections with others.
When more people have access to more ideas, everyone benefits. However, there’s no denying that much of the research going on at Duke is very high-level, usually going unread by much of the student body. Other fascinating content goes unnoticed simply due to the busy lives of Duke students, and the sheer volume of exciting events. (If only we could all be multiple places at once.) My goal is to take ideas – whether overly intimidating or underappreciated—and present them in a way that is more accessible for anyone who is interested.
When I first heard of the idea of salt-water running cars, the idea was just that: an idea. The frenzy began in 2007 when John Kanzius, an American engineer, accidentally discovered how to “burn” salt water while attempting to research a cure for cancer. Today, the QUANT e-Sport Limousine is an all-electric sports car concept that uses an electrolyte flow cell, powered by salt water. It actually works, and was authorized for on-road testing in Germany a few years ago soon after its debut. It is many years from authorization, and it will likely be an even longer time before it is a viable option from an economic standpoint, but the progress is apparent.
Fifteen years since my infatuation with this idea, I can’t help but feel slightly emotionally connected to it. Humans grow up. Ideas do, too. I did not invent the first car that runs on salt water, but I am eternally grateful for every new idea that fuels my curiosity, shapes my values, and expands my current perspectives.
“My name is Meg Stalter I’m 5’7 I’m living in LA and a fun fact about me is something bad happened to my cousin.”
As made evident by her Twitter profile, my favorite comedian, Megan (“Meg”) Stalter, knows how to make an introduction. Stalter is best known (as far as I know) for her role in the HBO comedy “Hacks,” in which she plays Kayla (whoever that is).
I do not have a Twitter account and I have never seen the show. While we are talking about me, I will explain that I do not really watch TV, with the one exception of West Wing.
Since we are still talking about me, you should know that I fibbed. There are two exceptions. The other one is Grantchester, a Masterpiece Mystery about a hot priest who solves crime (but that was sort of a given, no?).
I share Stalter’s bio for a few reasons. For starters, it makes me smile, and sharing a smile is a tried-and-true way to score a friend (cha-ching!).
On top of that, it is a good example of someone who knows how to make a first impression. I expect to have made a great impression by the time I finish this, but to ensure things got started on the right foot, hedging my bets if you will, I thought it best to leave the preamble to someone at the top of the trade.
Stalter’s bio also proves a simple point; it is not merely what you say that counts, but how you say it.
I am something of a sub-par reader. I love to read, it is just not my biggest strength (doesn’t mean it can’t be (growth mindset)! Just facing today’s facts). I don’t think I read enough as a child, so now I am slow and I usually fall asleep.
But I get by. I power through my class readings, I keep a book on my bedside table, and I get my news through the radio (that and two free tickets to the Hoppin’ John’s Fiddler’s Convention–it pays to be tuned into WUNC on Saturday nights at 10. Cha-ching!).
This relationship with reading influences my writing style. When I write, I try to keep my readers awake. Not with what I write — I have full faith in the topic at hand’s capacity to speak for itself — but with the way I write it.
My past experience writing for a published paper was in high school, where I spent four years as co-editor of the “Hustle and Bustle” page. I authored a satirical advice column in which troubled high schoolers (me) could send their personal woes to someone who would publish them for the whole school to read (also me). I like writing as a secondary form of chatting.
And so it is with this laudable writing background that I report to you on the groundbreaking discoveries from one of the top research universities in the U.S.
Why write for a research blog? Research is interesting. Research makes the world go round. Just ask a freshman. They all came here for the “research opportunities,” as did all the other freshmen at all the other universities.
Before I sign off, I will let you know where you might catch me in my free time. This is a key element of the standard student bio, and I am prone to severe FOMO, so let me get right to it.
I am a sophomore from Hickory, North Carolina hoping to major in Public Policy and minor in Math. In my free time you might catch me listening to NPR, jogging, potting, singing to myself, making a smoothie, telling people about my smoothie, spamming my contacts for an ice cream date, or for the not-so-lucky, trying my best at Appalachian-style fiddle.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health challenges were the leading cause of poor life outcomes in young people. As many as 1 in 5 U.S. children aged 3 to 17 have a mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Now, that crisis has been exacerbated. Symptoms of depression and anxiety for children and adolescents have doubled during the pandemic.
Seventy percent of U.S. public schools reported an increase in the number of children seeking mental health services during the pandemic and many have struggled to meet the needs of those students, according to the latest federal data.
As the Biden administration and Congress consider policies and programs that could help curb these mental health challenges that children face, a group of Duke researchers may already have one answer.
Eighteen years after administering an intensive childhood intervention program called Fast Track, a group of Sanford School of Public Policy scholars has found that it not only proved effective at reducing conduct problems and juvenile arrests in childhood, it also improved family outcomes when the original children grow up and become parents themselves.
Their followup findings, which appeared in June in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, show that girls who received the Fast Track intervention during first through 10th grades had improvements in several aspects of their family environments 18 years later.
Specifically, Fast Track reduced food insecurity in the mothers’ family environments, and lessened the mothers’ depression, alcohol and drug problems, and their use of corporal punishment.
“We knew the Fast Track early childhood intervention was successful at reducing aggressive behavior in childhood and criminal arrests in young adulthood,” said Drew Rothenberg, research scientist at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy and lead author on the study.
“This research demonstrates that the early intervention doesn’t just benefit the children receiving the services,” he added. “It also improves the family environments those child form as adults, benefiting their own children. In other words, it looks like the effects of early intervention can ripple across generations.”
According to Rothenberg, the beneficial effects of Fast Track are just as large as those seen in prevention programs that only affect a single generation.
“Impressively, these beneficial effects were also almost as big as those seen immediately after the end of the Fast Track intervention 18 years earlier,” Rothenberg said. “Therefore, for mothers, Fast Track’s effects appear powerful across two generations of homes and are much longer-lasting than previous research suggested.”
“Surprisingly, the benefits of the Fast Track intervention on family environments formed as adults found for mothers did not extend to fathers,” said study co-author Jennifer Lansford, research professor at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy and director of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy.
“Even in contemporary society, women are still tasked with a greater proportion of child-rearing responsibility, and still more often called to create family routines and climate,” Lansford said. “Therefore, the beneficial Fast Track effects on reducing corporal punishment and increasing family food security may emerge only in mothers because mothers are still primarily responsible for the provision of parenting and procurement of resources for family meals, and consequently more likely to benefit from such intervention.”
Rothenberg said the findings suggest childhood mental health interventions can break maladaptive cycles and promote the development of healthy family environments when those children grow up and start their own families.
“With this evidence, we also demonstrate that investing in early childhood interventions won’t just pay off for today’s children but also for generations of children to come,” Rothenberg said.
Researchers surveyed 400 Fast Track participants who were now parents at age 34 about aspects of their current family environment. They wanted to assess whether parent substance use problems, depression, romantic partner violence, parent warmth, parent use of physical aggression and corporal punishment, family chaos, and food insecurity were better for adults who had participated in Fast Track as children than for adults who had been in the control group.
“We designed the Fast Track program to improve emotional awareness and interpersonal competence among children at high risk for peer conflict, antisocial and delinquent behaviors and life-course failure,” said study co-author Kenneth Dodge, the William McDougall Distinguished Professor of Public Policy Studies at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy. Dodge is a member of the Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group that created the Fast Track program.
Participants had been drawn from high-risk elementary schools in Durham, North Carolina, Nashville, Tennessee, rural Pennsylvania and Seattle, Washington. Starting in first grade, students were randomly assigned to either receive Fast Track or be followed as a control group. Students who received the Fast Track intervention received social skills training, tutoring, and a social-emotional learning curriculum taught by teachers. Their parents received training in techniques to help the students manage their behavior.
The Fast Track project has been supported since 1991 by National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Grants R18MH48043, R18MH50951, R18MH50952, R18MH50953, R01MH062988, K05MH00797, and K05MH01027; National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Grants R01DA016903, K05DA15226, RC1DA028248, and P30DA023026; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grant R01HD093651; and Department of Education Grant S184U30002.
CITATION: “Intergenerational Effects Of The Fast Track Intervention on the Home Environment: A Randomized Control Trial,” William Andrew Rothenberg, Jennifer E. Lansford, Jennifer Godwin, Kenneth A. Dodge, William E. Copeland, Candice L. Odgers, Robert J. McMahon, Natalie Goluter, and Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, June 15, 2022. DOI: 10.1111/jcpp.13648
Post by Sarah Brantley, communications director for Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy
An April symposium at Grainger Hall, People and Nature, brought a diverse set of speakers, both from Duke and other U.S. institutions, to examine the relationship between human culture and land and to discuss pressing issues such as environmental justice. The session was organized by PhD students Nicholas School of the Environment and the biology department.
Professor Paul Manos of Duke Biology told us how oaks, ubiquitous tree species in temperate regions, can make people think about nature. A walk in the woods looking at the different oaks can result in a fascinating journey of natural history. For those who are curious enough, an inquiry into the lives of oaks will take them deep into topics such as evolutionary history, leaky species boundaries, plant-animal interactions, among others, Manos said. Keeping true to the theme of the symposium, Manos explored some hypotheses about the first time that humans had contact with oaks, and how this relationship unfolded ever since.
Associate Professor Orou G. Gaoue of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, took us through a detailed case study of human and plant interactions with long-term data from the country of Benin, in Africa. He showed how the harvest of the African mahogany (Khaya senegalensis) affects human demography and even the marriage dynamics of the Fulani people, with many other insights into the intertwined relationship of the locals and their harvest.
Central to the morning sessions were the rights of nature and the granting of personhood to non-humans, which is common in the cosmology of many indigenous cultures. For instance, Andrew Curley, assistant professor at the University of Arizona, mentioned in his talk that the O’odham people in the Sonoran Desert confer the Saguaro cactus personhood status. His talk exposed how colonial dynamics have created climate catastrophes and drought around the Colorado River, how indigenous peoples have to navigate these foreign systems, and how they understand their relationship with the land and water.
Michelle Carter, a first-year Masters of Environmental Management (MEM) student at Duke, examined the feasibility of the rights of nature in the US legal system. These rights allow certain natural features (e.g. rivers) to stand as a sole party in litigation and recover damages on their behalf. However, effective application and the enforcement of policy have been lacking.
The second part of the symposium focused on environmental justice. Duke Ph.D. student Maggie Swift presented a land acknowledgement which was divided into three parts: recognition of the violent history of the past; an understanding of the present with a celebration of the lives and achievements of current indigenous peoples; and a call to action so that participants were encouraged to financially support native-led organizations. Links for donations and more information can be found on the symposium website. The land acknowledgement was followed by a brief presentation on the project Unearthing Duke Forest that explores the human history surrounding Duke Forest.
Assistant professor Christine Folch, from Duke’s Department of Cultural Anthropology provided an analysis of the discourse around climate change. At the center was the question “do you believe in climate change?” which has ingrained the element of doubt and the ability of the speaker to say “no, I don’t.”
Associate professor Louie Rivers III, from NC State University, gave a talk on perceived environmental risks and their influence on social justice. He pointed out that these questions could be dismissed by certain groups such as black farmers, who are concerned and disproportionally affected by environmental issues but might not relate to how the question is addressed.
Sherri White-Williamson, Environmental Justice Policy director at NC Conservation Network, explained the concept of environmental justice and provided concrete examples of how certain policies (e.g. federal housing/lending policies or interstate highway systems) can create inequalities that leave communities of color to bear the exposure of environmental degradation. She also made us aware that this year is the 40th anniversary of the birth of the US environmental justice movement that started when an African-American community in Warren County, North Carolina organized to fight a hazardous waste landfill.
No exploration of people and nature would be complete without including the seas. A team of three students at the Duke University Marine Lab, undergrad Maddie Paris, second-year MEM Claire Huang, and Ph.D. student Rebecca Horan, presented two case studies of social and ecological outcomes linked to education and outreach interventions conducted in tropical marine environments.
Their first case study was on turtle education in Grenada, West Indies. Here a 10-week summer program for local children ages 9-12 created an improved understanding of marine turtle biology and its connection to the health of the ocean and their communities. The second case study was a 4-week training course for fisher people and fisheries officers in Mtwara, Tanzania. These participants increased their skills in monitoring the local reefs and were better equipped to educate their communities on marine environmental issues.
The symposium ended with two open questions for the audience, which should be considerations for anyone doing environmental research: Why is it important to jointly consider people and nature in your work? What insights do you gain in your work by taking this approach?
Guest post by Rubén Darío Palacio, Ph.D. 2022 in Conservation Biology from the Nicholas School of the Environment, and science director of conservation non-profit Fundacion Ecotonos in Colombia.
The Duke Medical Ethics Journal (DMEJ) is a golden opportunity to listen to the ways the world around me hurts and heals. It means asking questions – who is being marginalized in my communities? Where is the injustice in my community? What can I do about it? And when these questions feel too big and too heavy, DMEJ means having a community of mentors, friends, and soul-strengtheners to ask the questions with me. Some of my most cherished experiences at Duke since freshman year have been those rooted in exploring the humanities.
Engaging with the field of ethics through the Kenan Institute of Ethics Living Learning Community as well leading the Duke Medical Ethics Journal (DMEJ) has given me a strong appreciation for the utilization of humanities in healthcare.
Before I saw the Spring 2021 DMEJ edition come together, I never realized how deeply identity could influence health. I had always thought of peoples’ identity in terms of cultural identity, not enough in terms of fertility or neurodiversity, until I read the pieces written by my fellow DMEJ writers. I realized more than ever that healthcare at its deepest level is not just about the biomedical model but it’s also about care, care for the values the lives of its practitioners and patients.
COVID-19 has also naturally brought up questions on the importance of mask-wearing, social distancing, and now, vaccinating. Though most students interested in entering the healthcare field typically fall on one side of the argument, it is safe to say that all of us had to take up more responsibility for ourselves and for others. What does it take to do what is right? The ethics (and effort!) surrounding this responsibility makes for deep conversations puts the “care” in healthcare. And these deep conversations are what DMEJ is all about.
Our upcoming issue, winter 2021, will be about the post-covid era. What does a return to normalcy even mean in an age where normal has been changed forever? And two of our bloggers have already written deeply affecting pieces on post pandemic mental health. To stay up to date on what DMEJ is up to, subscribe to our listserv. We’re always looking for more voices to join our conversation. 🙂
Roughly one in seven New York City children suffer confirmed mistreatment at home and many are placed in foster care. But relatively few children are permanently separated from their parents by the termination of parental rights, according to new research from Duke University and Rutgers University-Newark.
The data points to a relative success story in the world of child welfare, said Chris Wildeman, a Duke University sociologist and co-author of the research. In New York City, child welfare specialists intervene often in abuse and neglect cases but are often able to avoid terminating parental rights, even when they do remove the child from the home, Wildeman added.
Wildeman’s co-authors are Kieran Healy, a Duke sociologist, and Frank Edwards and Sara Wakefield from the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University – Newark.
“I think the core takeaway there is that New York is the prime example of taking maltreatment seriously and intervening as a system,” Wildeman said. “But also taking seriously the idea that permanent termination of parental rights totally closes off any chance for family reunification, so only doing it in the most extreme circumstances.”
The peer-reviewed study, appearing the week of July 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, derives from an analysis of child welfare data from the nation’s 20 most populous counties. (The New York data is from all five boroughs because the entire city’s child welfare system is under a single governing umbrella)
The study looked at how often children were the subject of a child services investigation; suffered confirmed mistreatment, were placed in foster care, and removed permanently from their homes through the termination of parental rights.
Nationally, roughly one in three children will be involved in an investigation by their local child protective services office; one in eight will experience maltreatment, one in 17 will be placed in foster care and one in 100 will have parental rights terminated, according to the study.
In New York City,roughly two in five children will be involved in an investigation by their local child protective services office; one in seven will experience confirmed maltreatment, one in 35 will be placed in foster care and one in 600 will have parental rights terminated, according to the study.
“The system is functioning more the way many child welfare advocates would like it to function,” Wildeman said. “Make sure you identify maltreatment, but attempt to use services rather than foster care treatment, at least initially, and then only terminating parental rights in only the most extreme circumstances. And trying to be aware of racial disparities in those processes.”
CITATION: “Contact with Child Protective Services is Pervasive but Unequally Distributed by Race and Ethnicity in Large US Counties,” PNAS, July 19, 2021. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2106272118
Post by Eric Ferreri , Duke University Communications
Collaborating with a colleague in Shanghai, we recently published an article that explains the mathematical concept of ‘in-betweening,’in images – calculating intermediate stages of changes in appearance from one image to the next.
Our equilibrium-driven deformation algorithm (EDDA) was used to demonstrate three difficult tasks of ‘in-betweening’ images: Facial aging, coronavirus spread in the lungs, and continental drift.
Part I. Understanding Pneumonia Invasion and Retreat in COVID-19
The pandemic has influenced the entire world and taken away nearly 3 million lives to date. If a person were unlucky enough to contract the virus and COVID-19, one way to diagnose them is to carry out CT scans of their lungs to visualize the damage caused by pneumonia.
However, it is impossible to monitor the patient all the time using CT scans. Thus, the invading process is usually invisible for doctors and researchers.
To solve this difficulty, we developed a mathematical algorithm which relies on only two CT scans to simulate the pneumonia invasion process caused by COVID-19.
We compared a series of CT scans of a Chinese patient taken at different times. This patient had severe pneumonia caused by COVID-19 but recovered after a successful treatment. Our simulation clearly revealed the pneumonia invasion process in the patient’s lungs and the fading away process after the treatment.
Our simulation results also identify several significant areas in which the patient’s lungs are more vulnerable to the virus and other areas in which the lungs have better response to the treatment. Those areas were perfectly consistent with the medical analysis based on this patient’s actual, real-time CT scan images. The consistency of our results indicates the value of the method.
Part II. Solving the Puzzle of Continental Drift
It has always been mysterious how the continents we know evolved and formed from the ancient single supercontinent, Pangaea. But then German polar researcher Alfred Wegener proposed the continental drift hypothesis in the early 20th century. Although many geologists argued about his hypothesis initially, more sound evidence such as continental structures, fossils and the magnetic polarity of rocks has supported Wegener’s proposition.
Our data-driven algorithm has been applied to simulate the possible evolution process of continents from Pangaea period.
The underlying forces driving continental drift were determined by the equilibrium status of the continents on the current planet. In order to describe the edges that divide the land to create oceans, we proposed a delicate thresholding scheme.
The formation and deformation for different continents is clearly revealed in our simulation. For example, the ‘drift’ of the Antarctic continent from Africa can be seen happening. This exciting simulation presents a quick and obvious way for geologists to establish more possible lines of inquiry about how continents can drift from one status to another, just based on the initial and equilibrium continental status. Combined with other technological advances, this data-driven method may provide a path to solve Wegener’s puzzle of continental drift.
The study was supported by the Department of Mathematics and Physics, Duke University.
One morning in November, during a visit to my parents’ house in Richmond, Virginia, I woke up to a text from my mom. “Evening Grosbeaks at the river. Want to go?” Obviously I wanted to go. I’d heard that they had left their normal range, but I was shocked that they’d made it to Richmond—Evening Grosbeaks hadn’t come this far south in decades.
This winter has been a special treat for birdwatchers—a huge “irruption” year for many northern bird species, like the Evening Grosbeak. Many irruptive species are in the finch family, which includes siskins, redpolls, crossbills and some grosbeaks. These species usually spend their winters in the northern US and Canada, but every so often they’ll journey farther south. What causes these birds to make massive flights some years and not others? It’s simple—food.
Many birds eat seeds from trees, which scientists call “mast,” in winter. But mast is produced irregularly in cycles—lots of mast one year, and little the next. Birds with irruptive migratory patterns move around to find food in winter. During years of large mast production, irruptive birds can stay in their preferred range farther north. But when food is scarce, they fly south.
Mast is an important food source not only for these irruptive bird species, but also for local bird species and mammals. In fact, mast cycles impact the entire forest food web. Years of high seed production, sometimes called “bumper crops”, lead to larger rodent populations, which then eat the eggs of songbirds. Mast might also be tied to outbreaks of tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease: rodent populations grow in big mast years, which means there are more hosts for ticks, leading to more disease.
Mast cycles can have such massive impacts on animal populations because the seed production of each tree species is synchronized across large geographic areas. That means that in one year, trees of a particular species in one area will produce many seeds, but in a neighboring region the same species might produce few seeds. These patterns create a food landscape that is dynamic across both space and time.
Ecologists want to understand how mast cycles work—and Duke is home to the founder and headquarters of MASTIF, a global network with exactly this goal. Dr. Jim Clark of the Nicholas School of the Environment wants to understand how climate drives mast cycles, and how these cycles will change under climate change. The MASTIF network is a huge collaboration that now includes over 2.5 million data points, each representing the mast produced by one tree in one year.
As a PhD student in Dr. Clark’s lab, I’m studying the relationship between mast cycles and the bird populations they support. I want to understand how birds respond to an environment that is constantly changing—in this case, how they respond to spatial and temporal changes in food availability. This historic irruption year is a perfect example of exactly this question: a year of low mast in the north has caused bird species to travel far outside their normal range to find food.
Interestingly, the association between these irruptive birds and food availability is so strong that it can be predicted fairly easily. The Winter Finch Forecast is based on a survey of mast crops across northern North America, which is then translated into a prediction of irruption patterns. The 2020 forecast noted that Evening Grosbeak populations would be larger this year due to outbreaks of spruce budworm, an important food source during the breeding season. This increase in the population size, combined with low winter food abundance, has led to a historic flight south.
The Clark Lab’s goal of understanding and predicting mast cycles would further our knowledge of these bird species’ unique migration patterns. With a more thorough understanding of mast patterns, we could better anticipate irruptions and implement informed conservation strategies. In addition to monitoring trees in long-term forest plots, the team uses data collected by citizen scientists through the MASTIF project on iNaturalist. With over 7,000 observations from 81 people across the world, these citizen scientists have contributed a huge amount of data.
I was thrilled to see the Evening Grosbeaks in November, and I assumed it would be my only chance. But since then, they’ve been seen throughout the Carolinas and into northern Florida. Recently, a homeowner in Hillsborough spotted a group of Evening Grosbeaks in his yard. He reported them to eBird, a citizen science project that collects data from birders around the world, and that birders use to locate rare species.
Since he reported them, birders have flocked to his yard in numbers almost as stunning as the birds themselves. Over the last few weeks, he’s counted up to 60 grosbeaks on a good day, and his yard has been visited by over 250 birders. Birders don’t want to miss this—no one knows when the next big irruption will be.
Guest post by Lane Scher, a Ph.D. student in Ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment.
Dr. Bryan Batch, a Duke endocrinologist and researcher, studies treating metabolic disorders (like diabetes) with non-pharmacological approaches. But, she says, her parents’ medical professions, and the hard work that went into them, resulted in her not wanting to pursue science at all as a child.
When she took biology in middle school however, it clicked. It didn’t feel like “the slog of math,” she says, because she enjoyed studying life in its different forms. This infatuation with science combined with a love for other people pushed her to pursue medicine.
Now, Dr. Batch focuses on racial disparities. She says that a huge issue with disparities, whether they involve race, poverty, food insecurity, educational opportunity, or health insurance, is that they are often driven by policy. “We are not trained to know how to affect change in policy in medical school — it’s not something we are taught. But I do think if physicians got more involved in politics and policy we would be able to make significant positive impact.”
What she does try to do is adapt to individual patient needs in the moment. Her work at Duke signifies what she, as a healthcare provider, can do within the time spent with patients to interact in the best way possible. For example, she can understand if someone has a literacy issue and adapt her methods of explanation so that their literacy doesn’t hinder their understanding. While it can be challenging for one person to change systemic issues or share lived experiences with people of different backgrounds, Dr. Batch makes every effort to create a comfortable environment where she is able to leave a positive impact.
These impacts have no doubt been affected by COVID-19, which Dr. Batch describes as one of the most challenging experiences in her twenty years of practicing medicine. Although telephone and video conferencing have been available for years, Dr. Batch explains that only now is there a drive to put them to use. “It was like someone came up behind you and just whacked you on the head,” she says — no warning, no time to get organized.
Dr. Batch feels lucky to be in endocrinology, where there is flexibility for remote visits. Yet, even when patients do have the chance to have an in-person visit, some don’t want to. If they do, the physical separation, masks, and face shields create a feeling of distance. Dr. Batch spends much of her clinical time at the Durham Veteran Affairs Hospital, across the street from Duke Hospital, where many hearing-impaired patients have difficulty understanding her words because her mask takes away the ability to read lips.
Dr. Batch says that even after the pandemic has passed, more than 30% of visits may remain over the telephone, which can give patients increased access to their doctors.
The challenges have infiltrated her research too, where now the only people she can bring in are those who need to visit the VA Medical Center for another reason anyway, like going to the eye doctor. Overall, she says, she has been surrounded by phenomenal people who rolled up their sleeves and said “let’s get it done.” Still, it has been exhausting.
To her, family is everything, and she tries her best to stay in touch with the people who matter most as a way to get through it all.
Even before COVID-19, Dr. Batch has been intentional about living her life to the fullest and staying true to her core values. If that means rescheduling things at work to be with her kids, she is unapologetic. She chose endocrinology as a specialty in part because it’s very family-oriented, and she feels lucky to have colleagues who understand the flexibility she values. Her ultimate goal is to leave a mark on the world but she also wants her happiness to come from what matters, so she stays close to her big family and lots of friends.
While sacrifices are inevitable in any career, Dr. Batch tries not to make large ones on the homefront. She takes it day by day, week by week, she says, to make it such that “work” and “life” are in harmony as much as possible. It is easy to get caught up and have the years go by, one day realizing that the important people have pulled away. Dr. Batch is deliberate about making the time for these people, including her two children and husband.
Dr. Batch is a role model for young people, particularly for women of color. She shared an anecdote about her inattentive high school counselor, to whom she went for a signature on her college application list. Seeing Yale, Harvard, and Brown, he told her that she was “reaching too high.” Batch responded, “I’m not here for your opinion on this list. I’m here for you to sign this form..
She ended up at Yale.
She says she had the courage to talk back to the counselor because her parents instilled the idea of working hard and pushing higher. What matters, she says, is believing in yourself and surrounding yourself with people who believe in you.
Unfortunately, Batch said, underestimation by others resonated throughout her college, medical school, residency, and fellowship, because she is a woman or because she is Black.
At the end of the day, Dr. Bryan Batch never let other people define her experience but instead allowed her hard work to prove her value and propel her to always reach higher.
Guest Post by Viha Patel, Class of 2021, NC School of Science and Math