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

Students exploring the Innovation Co-Lab

Author: Noor Nazir

Senior Presenters Explore Cultural Dynamics and Justice Around the World

When we think about global interconnectedness we often focus on varied cultures, but we tend to forget about innumerable systemic dynamics that could enrich our understanding of the world. The senior presentations given by students in International Comparative Studies to mark the end of the term shared their mission to understand the world better through research.

The exploration of language ideologies in Mauritius, the complex yet fascinating web of transitional justice, the contentious aspects of medical missions in global health, and the intersection between superficiality and urban dynamics in Los Angeles all demonstrated understanding the unseen world at play.

Language and Identity in Mauritius

Katy Turner’s research into the Mauritian education system sheds light on the complex interplay between language and colonial histories. Even though one could argue colonialism is a tale of the past, Turner’s research proved otherwise. In Mauritius, where the creole language — formed by enslaved individuals and now a mother tongue — meets societal resistance, the educational emphasis remains on English and French. Turner’s exploration raises critical questions: How do Mauritian primary school teachers perceive the role of Mauritian Creole, especially given its contentious status? How has the colonial past shaped these perceptions?

Her findings reveal a conflicted landscape. While some view the Mauritian Creole as a relic of the past, advocating for a future aligned with English, others see it as vital for a holistic educational experience. Its colloquial use in classrooms helps connect students with their history, and according to her observation, students didn’t mind its use over English and French, but their parents very much did. They preferred English and French over their own local language. This put me in a daze. Afterall, being Pakistani born and raised, this wasn’t a surprise: English is the language of the rich, and Urdu is the language of the poor. These complex linguistic preferences of these countries highlight how colonized some developing countries are till today.

In Mauritius, the narratives of slaves, parents and educational policies often discourage this practice. This ‘hidden curriculum‘ suggests a deep-seated struggle with identity and linguistic heritage, hinting at a broader dialogue about language as a carrier of culture and history. This colonial hangover is one we need to fight to connect with what our culture really means. 

The Anti-Politics of Memory in Transitional Justice

Grace Endrud delves into the “anti-politics” of memory, examining how transitional justice often morphs into a universal narrative that may overlook local truths. Her focus on the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) illuminates the challenges of defining justice in varied contexts — ranging from criminal justice to truth commissions. The ICTJ’s extensive work is reflected in their archival collections spanning several decades. Grace sat in the library searching through archives for days, and went to great lengths (like analyzing the order they were in) to show their global influence also reveals tensions, such as in Iraq where document manipulation was used to sway electoral outcomes.

Blindfolded suspected militants, with possible links to al-Qaeda, are seen at Iraqi police headquarters in Diyala province, north of Baghdad December 5, 2011. Police forces arrested 30 suspected militants during a raid in Diyala province, a police source said. REUTERS/Stringer

This research was inspired by James Ferguson’s analysis in “The Anti-Politics Machine.” It suggested that transitional justice can sometimes strip away the political layers that are essential for understanding and addressing the root causes of injustice.

Reassessing Medical Missions Through a Decolonial Lens

Catherine Purnell’s investigation into medical missions driven by evangelical Christian beliefs poses questions about the possibility of decolonizing global health. The narrative that divides the world into those who help and those who need help is deeply entrenched in the ethos of many medical missions. Purnell’s interviews with medical missionaries reveal an underlying intention to provide care in remote areas, which often includes building schools and water systems alongside healthcare.

However, the real challenge lies in shifting these missions from a model of evangelical humanitarianism to one of genuine decolonization. According to her, true decolonized care would prioritize giving autonomy back to local communities and focusing on solidarity rather than charity. Purnell’s findings suggest a fundamental conflict between the traditional goals of medical missions and the emerging needs of decolonial, equitable healthcare practices.

The Multicultural Dynamics of Urban Spaces

Jess Blumenthal’s exploration into the complex narratives of multiculturalism in Los Angeles offers a fascinating lens through which to view urban dynamics and identity. Starting with the historic intersections in neighborhoods like Little Tokyo/Bronzeville, Jess examines the fluid and often contentious shifts in community compositions and their cultural implications. Originally a Japanese neighborhood, Bronzeville became predominantly African American during World War II when Japanese residents were interned. Such shifts underscore the impermanence and adaptability of urban ethnic landscapes. 

Jess connects these historical and cultural narratives to broader literary works like “Tropic of Orange” and Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.” These works critique the superficiality of multiculturalism, suggesting a more interconnected and deeply woven fabric of society that transcends simplistic understandings of diversity. Jess uses these stories to highlight a poignant metaphor: just as characters in Butler’s work envision a destiny among the stars, our own societal evolution might be seen as an ongoing journey towards a more genuinely integrated multiculturalism.

Conclusion

Together, these presentations accentuated the complexities of cultural identity, memory politics, and health equity in a globalized world. They challenge us to think critically about how languages shape national identity, how justice processes can reflect deeper truths without falling into the traps of depoliticization, and how global health initiatives might genuinely respect and uplift the communities they intend to serve. As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, these discussions are crucial for fostering a more just and equitable global society.

Post by Noor Nazir, class of 2027

Navigating the Complex World of Social Media and Political Polarization: Insights from Duke’s Polarization Lab

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This February, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments challenging laws in Florida and Texas that would regulate how social media companies like Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) control what posts can appear on their sites.

Given the legal challenges involved over the concerns of the role social media plays in creating polarization, there is a need for further research to explore the issue. Enter Duke’s Polarization Lab, a multidisciplinary research hub designed to explore and mitigate the societal effects of online engagement.

In an April 17 seminar, Polarization Lab postdoc Max Allamong delved into the workings and discoveries of this innovative lab, which brings together experts from seven disciplines and various career stages, supported by twelve funders and partners, including five UNC affiliates.

Duke postdoctoral associate Max Allamong

Unless you’re okay with people stealing your data for their own research, conducting studies based on social media is next to impossible, Allamong explained.

In their attempt to conduct research ethically, the lab has developed a tool called “Discussit.” This platform enables users to see the partisanship of people they are communicating with online, aiming to reduce polarization by fostering dialogue across political divides. To put it simply, they’ll know if they’re talking to someone from the left or if they’re talking to someone from the right. Building on this, Allamong also introduced “Spark Social,” a social media simulator where researchers can adjust variables to study interactions under controlled conditions. This system not only allows for the modification of user interactions but also employs large language models (like those used in ChatGPT) to simulate realistic conversations.

Allamong highlighted a particularly revealing study from the lab, titled “Outnumbered Online,” which examined how individuals behave in partisan echo chambers versus balanced environments. The study placed users in forums where they were either in the majority or minority in terms of political alignment, revealing that being outnumbered led to increased self-censorship and perceptions of a toxic environment.

The lab’s ongoing work also explores the broader implications of polarization on political engagement. By manipulating the type of content users see, researchers are examining variables like believability and replicability of data generated by AI. This approach not only contributes to academic knowledge but also has practical implications for designing healthier online spaces.

As social media continues to shape political and social discourse, the work of Duke’s Polarization Lab and Allamong serves as a safe space to conduct ethical and meaningful research. The insights gained here will better equip us to analyze the polarization created by social media companies, and how that affects the political landscape of the country. The longstanding questions of the effects of echo chambers may soon be answered. This research will undoubtedly influence how we engage with and understand the digital world around us, making it a crucial endeavour for fostering a more informed and less polarized society.

Post by Noor Nazir, class of 2027

Post-COVID: The New Normal in the Health Care System

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The COVID-19 pandemic sometimes feels like a problem we mostly dealt with yesterday, not one we’re still facing today. However, Duke medical anthropologist Harris Solomon had a different story to tell in the Trent Humanities in Medicine Lecture on April 9.

The transformations within Intensive Care Units (ICUs) across the globe, initially sparked by necessity, have morphed into what might be our “next normal,” Solomon said.

Harris Solomon. Associate Professor in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University

During the height of the pandemic, hospitals morphed into war zones where the frontlines became the ICU rooms. Like never before, these rooms became a no-man’s-land that few others would cross. A separation was born.

This separation, however, was beyond a physical space; it was a delineation of roles and responsibilities. Nurses often found themselves acting as intermediaries between the patient and the external healthcare team, prompting a sense of isolation and moral burden. They wrestled with their fears in solitary confinement, while colleagues relayed instructions over walkie-talkies—a stark contrast to the collaborative nature of pre-pandemic medicine. Protocols that were once straightforward now needed a touch of ‘MacGyvering,’ with clinicians making do with what was available.

The rigidity of clinical trials also faced challenges; the blinding of studies was questioned as lifesaving drugs teetered on the edge of accessibility. Solomon gave an example of what this change looked like in real life. A patient was due to be treated, and they said that they didn’t care about the details. Even if it was a placebo, they were fine with it. While he didn’t go into the specifics of what had happened, he used this story to accentuate the disparity between evidence and treatment. People don’t care about the treatment as much as they used to.

“We make decisions like we never did before. We summon the need to accept uncertainty”, Solomon said.

As the crisis was evolving, and the world was recovering from the aftermath of COVID, the fabric of healthcare work found itself to be changed forever. Processes and practices that were once considered to be stable, are now brought under a microscope in a post-pandemic world.

The pandemic has indeed been a catalyst for change, but is this change good? While there is no black-and-white answer, I left the room feeling a bit uncomfortable. Although the pandemic has prompted a reevaluation of the health care system, have we innovated, or have we just found shortcuts?

 

Echoes of Liberty: Revisiting the Swatantra Party’s Vision for India’s Economy

If you’re looking to revisit the nuanced history of the Swatantra Party in post-colonial India, you’ve come to the right place! During Aditya Balasubramanian’s talk on his book, ‘Toward a Free Economy: Swatantra and Opposition Politics in Democratic India’, I embarked on a journey that not only took me back to South Asia’s economy but also helped me reflect on the broader implications of Balasubramanian’s vision for a free economy. 

I grew up to have an interest in India’s economic history. Living in Pakistan, we (my household) always looked toward our neighboring country, India, to reflect on our own economic situation. The echoes of discussion on free economy versus socialist planning reverberated in the hallways of everywhere I turned to. The narrative of the Swatantra Party, as captured in the book and the talk, presents a fascinating counterpoint to the dominant economic narratives in post-colonial India, challenging us to ponder the possibilities of a different economic path.

Balasubramanian talked about the heart of Swatantra’s ideology: a profound belief in a nonsectarian, right-wing political stance, advocating for an unfettered private economy and a decentralized economic system. The party’s anti-communism stance wasn’t merely ideological but a practical caution against nationalization. This reminds me of discussions with my grandmother, who, amidst the economic challenges of her time, often lamented the lost opportunities for economic liberalization that Swatantra championed.

Balasubramanian went on to explain the narrative of the Indian libertarian, Ranchhoddas Bhuvan Lotwala, and his transformation of a flower shop into a machine-operated flour mill encapsulates the spirit of economic innovation and entrepreneurship that Swatantra celebrated. This story, emblematic of the broader push for modernization and the embrace of new technologies, serves as a reminder of the countless small businesses across India that continue to innovate and adapt in the face of changing economic landscapes. These small businesses play a bigger role than we think, and the economy of the government can aid in transforming their potential. Swatantra and its stories serve as proof for that. 

He concluded the talk by pointing out three things that need our attention::

1)    Exploring how a free-market economy can work alongside federal government policies.

2)    Addressing how special interests have influenced policies in a way that ignores regional concerns, particularly noting the removal of corporate taxes. 

3)    Emphasizing the importance of limiting authoritarian tendencies to ensure a balanced and democratic governance system.

The Swatantra Party’s story is a reminder of the enduring power of ideas and the impact they can have on the economic and political fabric of a nation: it is a story that must never be forgotten. Afterall, there’s too much to learn from it.

Post by Noor Nazir, class of 2027

The Invisible Role of Women in Africa’s Liberation Movements

“Claims to knowledge are claims to power”

This phrase succinctly encapsulates Dr. Rama Salla Dieng’s talk on the intricate relationship between information and the patriarchy that exists, and has existed, in our society. 

As a Pan-Africanist Feminist scholar-activist, Dr. Dieng’s research mainly encompasses the Anti-Colonial Feminist Solidarity in West Africa. She delved into the Yewwu Yewwi, the first feminist movement in Senegal. She further highlighted the main aims of the women’s liberation movement; to cultivate and maintain solidarity between the members, to stand in solidarity with all Senegalese women, and to show support with all other victims of apartheid.

The focus of this talk was to shed light on movements in Africa that have supported women. She accentuated the importance of mid-wifes, and women who oversaw child-care, cooked, and worked on the fields. They were leading, not from the front but from the back. According to her, the purpose of the liberation movement is to not only celebrate the visible, but also acknowledge the invisible – the true backbone of those who lifted others during the apartheid. 

“Can rural African women be heard alongside Aimé and Senghor as also articulating prescient visions of liberation in the 20th century? Can M’ballia Camara’s death at the hands of a canton chief, her pregnant body slashed open by his saber in a dispute over local taxes for the colonial administration, speak across time and archival silences? Can it speak into a historical canon that is only now beginning to acknowledge black women as midwives who help to birth anticolonial movements and bear witness also to the leadership in these movements?” Dieng used Joseph-Gabriel’s poignant reflections to emphasize the pivotal yet overlooked contributions of rural African women in shaping liberation narratives, highlighting the necessity of integrating their voices into our historical understanding.

Dieng’s exploration into the Yewwu Yewwi movement and her invocation of historical accounts like M’ballia Camara’s tragic fate highlight a crucial message: the narratives of rural African women are integral to understanding the full spectrum of liberation efforts. By recognizing the gendered labor that has sustained communities through apartheid and beyond is not only existent but invaluable, we can begin to dismantle the structures of patriarchy that have long marginalized these vital contributions. 

M'ballia Camara

M’balia Camara: Guinean independence activist

As I reflect on the significance of these revelations, I am reminded that the path to true liberation is paved with the stories of those who have been overlooked.

Let us commit to making these voices heard, ensuring their rightful place in the annals of history and in the continuing struggle for equality and justice!

Post by Noor Nazir, class of 2027

Big Bets on Humanity: How Rajiv Shah’s Audacity is Winning the Fight Against Pandemics

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If your community relied on COVID-19 rapid tests to reopen safely during the first year of the pandemic, there’s a good chance Rajiv Shah had something to do with it. Not just for his ambition but also for his audacity to transform the nature of our response to pandemics: Rajiv Shah, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, played a crucial role in scaling up diagnostic testing for COVID-19.

He’s also the man who tackled Ebola with the Obama Administration. Back then, Shah and his team embarked on a “big bet” to deploy 2,500 troops to fight the disease, not on the battlefield, but on the frontlines of human health.  Much like the name of his 2023 book “Big Bets,” he embarked on a journey to change the world. 

In a Jan. 31 talk hosted by the Duke Global Health Institute, Shah discussed his “big bet mindset” when it comes to tackling public health challenges.

Bet #1 Diagnostic Testing at Scale 

For starters, what’s a big bet? 

“It’s a big bet you take on the community to help young people get opportunities. Often, when we think of charitable endeavors, we imagine that doing a little bit is beneficial because it makes us feel good. In contrast, a big endeavor means taking on something significant and engaging in the hard work necessary. It’s about going beyond just doing the best we can; this isn’t merely a charitable endeavor, it’s a strategic approach to ensure national security.” Shah explained. 

Keeping true to his word, the goal was clear: administer 30 million tests per week to preempt the need for lockdowns and enable a safer, faster return to normalcy. This was not just a health initiative; it was a socio-economic strategy aimed at averting total disaster. He took a big bet, and the numbers spoke for themselves. The Rockefeller Foundation played a pivotal role in assisting schools with their reopening strategies during the pandemic. This support included the establishment of collaborative networks, the development of resources and guidelines, and the provision of expert recommendations. Now do you get why this man probably saved your life? It’s because he did! 

Bet #2 A Memo for Bill Gates 

It wasn’t all that easy for him though. He had his haters (don’t we all?). Perhaps the difference was, his hater was Bill Gates. But he successfully proved Gates wrong too. Thankfully, Gates and Shah are more like besties than anything now. Despite the initial dismissal of his ideas as “the stupidest thing,” Shah’s persistence and innovative thinking paved the way for a groundbreaking bond structure to fund vaccinations, ultimately saving millions of children’s lives. Shah and Gates – two greats in one room – inevitability led to the production of something good: The Vaccine Alliance. This meeting set the stage for a three-year roadmap focused on a bond structure to fund vaccinations. This initiative ultimately contributed to saving 16 million children’s lives. 

The Final Bet: The Power of Experimentation. 

I’ll be honest, I was intimidated walking into this room. I was in my Duke hoodie, not expecting fancy foods, and coat checks (good news: this meant they recorded his speech and uploaded it on YouTube. Check it out!).

At the heart of Shah’s philosophy is a belief in the power of experimentation and innovation. His call to “keep experimenting” embodies the spirit of resilience and creativity that is essential for tackling the world’s most daunting health challenges. Being amidst well-suited individuals while donned in a hoodie wasn’t an experiment in the scientific sense, but it was an experience that highlighted the contrast between expectations and reality, comfort zones and the unfamiliar. It served as a metaphor for the broader experiments we’re all a part of—those that push us beyond our boundaries, challenge our preconceptions, and ultimately lead to growth.

His book was called ‘Big Bets’ because the editors thought it was catchy. They were right. But this title doesn’t just grab our attention—it invites us into a world where daring to dream big and taking calculated risks can lead to monumental changes in public health and beyond.

Post by Noor Nazir, class of 2027

Highlights from the Peace Lab Innovation Showcase

Gideon Kapalasa of UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health
Gideon Kapalasa of UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health

This fall, the Sanford School of Public Policy hosted a Peace Lab Innovations Showcase, where master’s students from Duke and the University of North Carolina shared their ideas for resolving problems surrounding different forms of conflict, injustices, and violence. The objective of the class ‘Introduction to Peace and Conflict Resolutions’ was to introduce the multi-disciplinary field of Peace and Conflict Studies as a foundation for the Rotary Peace Studies curriculum. 

The showcase featured various presentations ranging from ‘Empowerment Exercises for Self-Exploration’ to ‘The Circle of Life: Peace in an Age of Broken Cycles’. One presentation, specifically, caught my eye.

The author Gideon Kapalasa, a master’s student at UNC, presented his take on building bridges of peace in Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi. He has been researching the camp for years and just recently moved to the U.S. to pursue his master’s degree.

Kapalasa’s research focused on empowering young men in the Dzaleka Refugee Camp. He explained the importance of engaging young men in schools, and other skill-building activities – with a crucial focus on their mental well-being. With his work, he hopes to achieve improved resilience within children, leading to improved life chances – bringing some level of degree to the neighborhoods of Malawi.

Another student and author, Anna Hallahan, focused on ‘The Art of Peace’. Her research focused on war and peace through an artistic lens. Through her project, she hopes to ponder questions such as ‘How has peace imagery evolved?’ and ‘How does the story of peace propaganda extend beyond the absence of war?’. In her presentation, she gave numerous examples of how the production of art can encourage and manipulate the mindset surrounding sensitive topics such as war – therefore, playing an intrinsic role in conflict resolution.

To witness the passion and unique ideas of master’s students was a refreshing reminder that our world has hope and research seems to be the perfect pathway to achieve that!

Post by Noor Nazir, class of 2027

Soldier to Philanthropist: Abraham George’s Lasting Legacy at Shanti Bhavan

From his time in the Indian military to his journey to the NYU Stern School of Business to making his mark in India through his social work, Abraham George seems to be, and indeed is, a jack of all trades. He is the founder and principal of Shanti Bhavan, a school for students born into India’s lowest socioeconomic class.

“The last 29 years since I founded Shanti Bhavan, it has been the most rewarding and satisfying part of my life – I’ve done a lot of stuff, but nothing compares to what I’ve done with this,” George said. “The satisfaction comes from the fact that the children we have worked with are able to acquire jobs in Amazon and study in schools like Duke – one of them is here!” His words were infused with unmistakable passion. The crowd cheered the former student. We experienced a collective shiver down our spines; the fruit of George’s work was right in front of us – undeniable and beautiful.

The story of his life’s work was made into a Netflix documentary called “Daughters of Destiny.” Created and produced by Vanessa Roh, it featured the lives of students at the boarding school George founded. During his talk, we saw an ABC news segment called “Shanti Bhavan: haven of peace”.

After hearing the inspirations and motivations behind the creation of this boarding school, the designation of it being a ‘haven of peace’ is irrefutable.

George didn’t start in philanthropy. As an 18-year-old he found himself in the Indian military; he was posted near Tibet (in the Salem pass) where his job was to establish gun positions in case China invaded the country, India. In subzero temperatures, he lived through it for eleven months. During his time there, he read a quote ‘there is nothing right about war, it is about who is left’.

And so, George began asking himself questions: Why was he ready to take people’s lives? What was he truly doing with his life? And what would life be like in service of others?

He embarked on a newfound journey: to create a safe space where religion, caste or class does not matter. Today, Shanti Bhavan serves as a school for all – where students are not called ‘students’ but rather ‘children’.

A crucial question still stands: does the success of Shanti Bhavan prove the effectiveness of all charitable projects? When asked, George was quick to point out the fact that without money, there is no success. Consequently, his first goal was to earn, and second was to fund. Perhaps then all charitable causes could be effective if one has funding? It’s difficult to have a concrete answer, but it goes without saying that if it is true, George’s work serves as evidence.

George moved on from the life of a solider, to pursue education in the hopes of reaching a place where he could benefit others. “Think of a world only a heart can build and never ask why” – a memorable quote from a true benevolent force, akin to angelic presence.

Post by Noor Nazir, Class of 2027





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