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

Students exploring the Innovation Co-Lab

Author: Olivia Zhu Page 1 of 3

The Art of Asking Questions at DataFest 2016

During DataFest, students engaged in intense collaboration. Image courtesy of Rita Lo.

Students engaged in intense collaboration during DataFest 2016, a stats and data analysis competition held from April 1-3 at Duke. Image courtesy of Rita Lo.

On Saturday night, while most students were fast asleep or out partying, Duke junior Callie Mao stayed up until the early hours of the morning pushing and pulling a real-world data set to see what she could make of it — for fun. Callie and her team had planned for months in advance to take part in DataFest 2016, a statistical analysis competition that occurred from April 1 to April 3.

A total of 277 students, hailing from schools as disparate as Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, NCSU, Meredith College, and even one high school, the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, gathered in the Edge to extract insight from a mystery data set. The camaraderie was palpable, as students animatedly sketched out their ideas on whiteboard walls and chatted while devouring mountains of free food.

Callie Mao ponders which aspects of data to include in her analysis.

Duke junior Callie Mao ponders which aspects of the data to include in her analysis.

Callie observed that the challenges the students faced at DataFest were extremely unique: “The most difficult part of DataFest is coming up with an idea. In class, we get specific problems, but at DataFest, we are thrown a massive data set and must figure out what to do with it. We originally came up with a lot of ideas, but the data set just didn’t have enough information to fully visualize though.”

At the core, Callie and her team, instead of answering questions posed in class, had to come up with innovative and insightful questions to pose themselves. With virtually no guidance, the team chose which aspects of the data to include and which to exclude.

Another principal consideration across all categories was which tools to use to quickly and clearly represent the data. Callie and her team used R to parse the relevant data, converted their desired data into JSON files, and used D3, a Javascript library, to code graphics to visualize the data. Other groups, however, used Tableau, a drag and drop interface that provided an expedited method for creating beautiful graphics.

Mentors assisted participants with formulating insights and presenting their results

Mentors assisted participants with formulating insights and presenting their results. Image courtesy of Rita Lo.

On Sunday afternoon, students presented their findings to their attentive peers and to a panel of judges, comprised of industry professionals, statistics professors from various universities, and representatives from Data and Visualization Services at Duke Libraries. Judges commended projects based on aspects such as incorporation of other data sources, like Google Adwords, comprehensibility of the data presentation, and the applicability of findings in a real industry setting.

Students competed in four categories:  best use of outside data, best data insight, best visualization, and best recommendation. The Baeesians, pictured below, took first place in best outside data, the SuperANOVA team won best data insight, the Standard Normal team won best visualization, and the Sample Solution team won best recommendation. The winning presentations will be available to view by May 2 at

Bayesian, the winner of the Best Outside Data category

The Baeasians, winner of the Best Outside Data category at DataFest 2016: Rahul Harikrishnan, Peter Shi, Qian Wang, Abhishek Upadhyaya. (Not pictured Justin Wang) Image courtesy of Rita Lo.


By student writer Olivia Zhu  professionalpicture

"Debugging the Gender Gap" in Tech

Lenna“Why isn’t Lenna wearing any clothes?” I implored my friend, shocked at seeing the shoulders-up nude photo of a woman on a mundane Monday in the Duke library. I had been going through a MATLAB tutorial on computer vision, and the sample image was, surprisingly, a naked lady. Apparently, when the USC developers behind a computer vision algorithm needed a sample face in 1973, someone just happened to walk into the lab with a Playboy magazine. The face of the woman on the centerfold, Lenna, has since become the default data for computer vision classes around the world. Because, of course, it’s totally normal to walk into an academic setting waving around a copy of Playboy, which would naturally be the first place one would go looking for a face.

Unfortunately, seeing female objectification in professional programming environments isn’t exactly an isolated incident. With the advent of the “brogrammer” culture, women have reported being exposed to workplaces in which male programmers share porn over open communication channels, according to CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap. When they’ve asked their male coworkers to stop, they were told, “Stop being such a girl.”

A showing of CODE was put on by RENCI, the Renaissance Computing Institute, and the

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The percentage of women earning degrees in computer science has been decreasing, rather than increasing, since the 1980s.

Carolina Women’s Center, on February 29 at UNC. RENCI, while addressing issues of staffing diversity within its own organization, was inspired to bring the issue to light in the greater UNC community. By 2020, we expect to see more than one million unfilled software engineering jobs. As of now, only 23% of technical jobs nationwide are filled by women, leaving a huge gap to fill in this important workspace.

The response of the largely female audience to the film was overwhelmingly positive. Lilly, a first-year math student at UNC, noted that the issues the film addressed were “obvious,” both in academic settings and in the online blogosphere. She appreciated the positive messages, such as in this GoldieBlox superbowl ad, that counter expectations of young girls to study more “social” subjects and encourage them to pursue science, technology, engineering and math. Addy, a first-year computer science student, noted that a supportive group of women in her CS401 class at UNC makes the dearth of women less noticeable.

Olivia, Tabatha, and Addy with a collage of "Why We Love Tech"

Olivia, Tabatha, and Megan with a collage of “Why We Love Tech”

Tabatha, a first-year computer science student at UNC, said that she feels intimidated in introductory computer science classes, where male students often have years of background knowledge that she doesn’t. She hesitates to show men her code until it is perfect, since she feels that as a woman, she has to prove that she is just as good as a man. This additional pressure and worry, CODE observed, often causes women to perform worse in quantitative classes. Tabatha, Megan, and Olivia attended the screening as part of a Women’s Studies class. Megan echoed Tabatha’s sentiment, relating that as a beginning programmer, she felt behind during HackNC, where most men already knew how to build apps.

Clearly, issues of female representation in tech persist into the university and industry level. However, CODE insists that we must remedy the problem during childhood, when girls receive societal messages that deter them from studying science and tech subjects.

If we’re going to be “changing/saving the world,” “making a better version of you,” and deciding how to “do the right thing,” (all rhetoric from the tech industry), we should probably have all genders and races represented in those responsible for effecting the change that will supposedly impact all of humanity.

For more information on CODE, check out

By Olivia Zhuprofessionalpicture

An Adventure Abroad in Brain-Machine Interfaces

11080630_10205422939006642_2749326952690554776_o copyMatthew McCann, Pratt ’16, spent his summer translating thoughts into movements.

A biomedical engineering and mathematics major, the Duke senior contributed to work in the field of prosthetics by creating a brain-machine interface that senses different brain waves of a subject and converts them into movements of a mechanical hand.

McCann, who had never traveled to Europe, let alone lived there for three months, took his foreign adventure one step further and pursued cutting-edge research in Rand Almajidy’s biomedical engineering lab in Germany. McCann was paired with the University of Freiburg for a Research Internship in Science and Engineering by the German Academic Exchange Service.

McCann combined two prominent biomedical techniques, tri-polar concentric electroencephalograms (tEEG) and near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), to pick up the brain activity of his subjects. EEGs are the typical devices one pictures when imagining recording brain activity: electrodes stuck all over a subject’s skull to pick up neuron firing when particular brain regions are active.

NIRS is a novel way of measuring brain activity. A common application of NIRS is in the pulse oximeter, or the plastic clip-like contraption doctors place on your finger to measure pulse and blood oxygenation. McCann used NIRS to measure the blood flow in different regions of the subject’s scalp. Different patterns of blood flow indicated dynamic brain activity.

Based on data obtained from these two techniques, McCann categorized brain activity into three specific intentions: thinking about moving the right hand, thinking about moving the left hand, and thinking about moving the feet. Each different intention to move was then connected with moving one finger of a mechanical hand. An example of the hand moving in response to different intentions is shown below (at 8x speed):

McCann’s major challenges in the project were processing complicated EEG signals and removing noise from these signals in order to correctly classify each of the movement intentions. He worked with vast amounts of training data from subjects who had practiced focusing acutely on each of the movements.

He ultimately isolated the specific frequency bands whose power was modulated most drastically during the three movement intentions he was targeting. These frequency bands served as the basis for his machine-learning algorithm, which matched known data the subjects had been trained to produce with unknown thoughts about movement.

After developing his algorithm, McCann tested it on unknown data, in which subjects thought about moving their right hand, their left hand, and their feet in some arbitrary sequence. McCann’s algorithm ultimately obtained impressive accuracy of up to 80% when categorizing unknown thoughts about movements.

Through his research, McCann demonstrated the feasibility of rapidly creating functional prosthetics from simple materials and only open-source software. His prosthetic hand proves promising to medical innovation, as it represents a non-invasive, functional brain-machine interface. Ultimately, his success sheds optimism on the future of prosthetics.

Learn more about McCann and his projects on his website.

professionalpictureby Olivia Zhu

Making Sense of Noise: Stephen Lisberger

Imagine catching a ball thrown at you out of mid-air. Your response seems almost instinctive, like a reflex. However, this seemingly simple movement contains complex components: one must judge the ball’s arc to decide where it will intersect a particular height, and how fast one must move his hand to catch the accelerating ball.

This calculation requires an entire concert of neural signals, firing in a manner so precise that it produces an accurate estimate of the speed and direction of the ball’s trajectory. Add to this complicated model the fact that each individual neuron produces a certain amount of noise — that is, across various trials, the same neurons produce different firing responses to the same stimuli. These multiple layers of convolution would frustrate most, but Dr. Stephen Lisberger thrives upon it.

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 12.47.43 PMLisberger, the Chair of Neurobiology at Duke School of Medicine, emphasizes that while a single noisy neuron cannot produce an accurate estimate of speed and direction, the key lies in populations of neurons. On January 25, Lisberger presented his research to a diverse crowd of Duke scientists.

Lisberger and his team have performed multiple trials in which a monkey tracked a visual stimulus with his eye, thus activating certain neurons. They found that the noise persisted even in neural populations.

Lisberger, rather than being discouraged, turns this noise into an asset. He reasons that variation is something which the brain must handle; therefore, he can use variation to learn about the brain.

When a monkey follows a visual stimulus with his eye, he integrates the sensory system with a motor region of the brain called MT. Lisberger isolated the source of the noise to the sensory system, rather than MT. He found that other movements originating from MT did not display the same noise; thus, the noise in eye tracking must have come from the sensory system.

The noise from the sensory system propagates down to MT, and Lisberger follows in his analysis.

One of his colleagues proposed that the random noise over a large population of neurons should cancel itself out. Lisberger contradicts this idea, noting that the variation is correlated among neurons in MT. Variations in pairs of neurons fluctuate up and down together. Thus, some of the “noise” is actually signal. This shared noise is transmitted through the circuit, while independent noise averages itself away.

Ultimately, Lisberger models neural responses over multiple trials to statistically estimate the direction and speed indicated by a particular response. The brain though, has not the luxury of simultaneously integrating and analyzing such large pools of data in its fraction-of-a-second estimate. Instead, the brain makes do with what it has, which, as Lisberger points out, is enough.

By Olivia Zhu  professionalpicture

HTC Vive: A New Dimension of Creativity

“I just threw eggs at the robot!” grad student Keaton Armentrout said to Amitha Gade, a fellow biomedical engineering master’s student.


“He just said, ‘Thank you for the egg, human. Give me another one.’ It was really fun.”

In what world does one throw eggs at grateful robots? In the virtual world of the HTC Vive, a 360 degree room-size virtual reality experience created by Steam and HTC that is now offering demos on the Duke campus from November 9 – 13. There is a noticeable buzz about Vive throughout campus.

I stepped in to the atrium of Fitzpatrick CIEMAS expecting a straightforward demonstration of how to pick up objects and look around in virtual reality. Instead, I found myself standing on the bow of a realistic ship, face to face with a full-size blue whale.

A Tiltbrush drawing I created with HTC Vive during my internship at Google. (Tiltbrush was acquired by Google/Alphabet).

A Tiltbrush drawing I created with HTC Vive during my internship at Google. (Tiltbrush was acquired by Google/Alphabet).

Peering over the side of the shipwreck into a deep ravine, I seriously pondered what would happen if I jumped over the railing –even though both my feet were planted firmly on the ground of CIEMAS.

Armentrout observed that the Vive differentiates itself from other VR devices like Oculus by allowing a full range of motion of the head: “I could actually bend down and look at the floorboards of the ship.”

In Valve’s Aperture Science demo, based on their game Portal, I attempted to repair a broken robot so real it was terrifying. I was nearly blown to bits by my robot overseer when I failed at my task. In total, I progressed through four modules, including the shipwreck, robot repair, a cooking lesson, and Tiltbrush, a three-dimensional drawing experience.

Game developers naturally are pursuing in virtual reality, but technologies like HTC Vive have implications far beyond the gaming realm. One of the applications of the Vive, explained one of the Vive representatives, could be virtual surgeries in medical schools. Medical schools could conserve cadavers by assigning medical students to learn operations on virtual bodies instead of human bodies. The virtual bodies would ideally provide the same experience as the operating room itself, revolutionizing the teaching of hands-on surgical skills.

Gade brainstormed further potential applications, such as using robots controlled by virtual reality to navigate search-and-rescue situations after a crisis, reducing danger to rescue crews.

The first time I tried the HTC Vive was not at Duke; it was at a Tiltbrush art show in San Francisco.

HTC Vive Tiltbrush masterpiece displayed at the San Francisco Tiltbrush art show

HTC Vive Tiltbrush masterpiece displayed at the San Francisco Tiltbrush art show

On the stage, an artist was moving her limbs in grand arcs as she painted the leaves of trees and brushing the ground to create a sparkling river. A large screen projected her virtual 3-D masterpiece for the audience.

Gilded frames on stands emphasized the interactive Vive devices, each of which housed a Tiltbrush masterpiece created by a local artist trained in the technique. Well-dressed attendees marvelled at seemingly invisible waterfalls and starry skies in the virtual reality paintings. Clearly, the Vive, by opening another dimension of artistic creation, is changing our notions of space and pushing the bounds of creativity.

12188016_10204922617616904_5669989382191630573_oBy Olivia Zhu Olivia_Zhu_100

From Neutrinos to Nuclear Deals: Congressman Bill Foster

Hon. Bill Foster of the 11th District of Illinois is the only member of Congress to hold a Ph.D. in science. On November 5th, Congressman Foster visited Duke’s Initiative for Science and Society to discuss his unconventional path to politics and his consequent unique perspective. He lightheartedly delivered what he called a “recruiting speech” to a room full of scientists, hoping to persuade students with scientific background to become involved in public policy.

Representative Bill Foster, Ph.D., doing what politicians must.

Bill Foster started his first business with his brother at the age of 19 out of his family basement. His earnest, innovative efforts to use computers to control lighting manifested in the company Electronic Theatre Controls, which powered Disneyland and Disneyworld’s Parade of Lights in the 1980s, the 2012 London Olympic Stadium, Chicago’s Millenium Park, and a large portion of shows on Broadway.

Foster then transitioned into his career in physics. He undertook the IMB Proton Decay Experiment for his Ph.D. thesis under Larry Sulak; Foster did not observe proton decay, but he did observe neutrinos from a supernova. Foster continued his physics career at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in suburban Chicago, where he smashed protons and anti-protons together at high speeds and later worked on the particle accelerators themselves.

In the midst of discovering Big Bang particles, Foster also fell into politics by maintaining an active civil engagement. He volunteered for Patrick Murphy’s campaign in 2006, where he says he “learned business on the factory floor,” a philosophy he has maintained since his days at Electronic Theatre Controls. He began the 110th Congress as an intern for Rep. Patrick Murphy, and ended it sitting as a Congressman.

Hon. Foster graphs the relative numbers of scientists and engineers, lawyers, and career politicians in Congress. The U.S. Congress consists mostly of career politicians, explains Foster, while China, for example, consists mostly of engineers.

Rep. Foster plots the relative numbers of scientists and engineers, lawyers, and career politicians in international governing bodies. The U.S. Congress consists mostly of career politicians, explains Foster, while China, for example, consists mostly of engineers.

Since winning his seat in 2012, Foster has introduced a scientific perspective to Congress, even if he’s careful not to conflate that with his political stance. He makes a point to clarify technical details of issues like the Iran nuclear deals, human genetic engineering, and public key cryptography on cell phones, to ensure that Congress makes the most informed decisions possible on highly complicated ethical issues. On genetic engineering, he noted, “Our ethical paradigm is not set up for it,” as the notion of “All men are created equal” fundamentally cannot handle humans whose genetic traits are pre-picked. Clearly, scientific expertise will be invaluable in such consequential issues.

Life in Washington, Foster stated, is unromantic. Foster lives in efficiency apartments and grounds himself by holding “Congress on your Corner” events, where he answers any constituent questions, like why grout isn’t working on a driveway.

Political customs, such as the dilemma of which tie to wear to promote his campaign, still bewilder his scientific mind. Most of the votes he makes, like renaming a post office, or voting on an issue the President will inevitably veto, don’t really matter, he said.

But what makes politics worth it for him, Foster explained as he passed around his voting card, is the power to make a positive difference in issues that impact millions of people. Such ambitions transcend the boundaries between science and policy.

By Olivia Zhu Olivia_Zhu_100

Moving Beyond #DistractinglySexy

Let’s not talk about Tim Hunt.

(Okay, a little: He’s the Nobel laureate who told the World Conference of Science Journalists, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”)

Instead, let’s talk about the invisible sexism and gender inequality pervasive in graduate school and industry, emphasized the panelists for the Graduate Women in Science’s Fall Career Development Panel, and let’s figure out how to effect meaningful change in the workplace.

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Dr. Bruce, Dr. Reiskind, and Dr. Bickford, from left to right

On October 20, Dr. Donna Bickford, Associate Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research at UNC, Dr. Katherine Bruce, Assistant Professor at Salem College, and Dr. Martha Reiskind, Research Assistant Professor at NC State, hosted an honest conversation about microaggressions, social gender norms, and general advice for dealing with a hostile work environment.

Though the panelists and the attending graduate students were loath to talk about one individual’s aggression, they looked incredibly favorably upon the social media movement, #DistractinglySexy, which resulted from Hunt’s comments.

The hashtag movement declares that, “You can be feminine, and you can be a scientist,” said Dr. Bruce, a sociologist. It breaks from reactionary notions that women must adopt masculine behavior in order to excel in their professions, as well as fosters a larger support community for women who may often feel isolated as the only female in their lab.

Marie CurieThe biggest disappointment of the #DistractinglySexy campaign though, was the lack of genuine conversation that followed. Dr. Bickford, an English professor, said that many men agreed with the sentiment of the movement but dismissed further concerns of daily sexism in the workplace, citing men like Hunt as anomalies and the sole perpetrators: “There are a few dinosaurs, but they’re dying.”

The panelists addressed the difficult question of how a woman ought to stand up to offending men in the workplace. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t… How do you blow the whistle without being betrayed?” asked Dr. Reiskind, who addresses issues of sexism in her lab. Especially in situations where the perpetrator is in a position of power, calling out sexist behavior carries the risk of being perceived as a “baying witch,” while remaining silent condemns one to perpetual harassment.

On the question of inaction from women, Dr. Reiskind described the utter disbelief, echoed by the other panelists, that often strikes when assault or harassment has occurred– the bizarre nature of the situation may prevent women from speaking up in the immediate moment where action may be conducive to behavior remediation.

Ultimately, this panel set out to solve problems. While no legislation was passed or cases resolved, holding honest, open conversations to more deeply understand issues is the first step in creating gender-equal workplaces.


By Olivia Zhu, Duke 2016Olivia_Zhu_100

From Idea to Impact: Salman Azhar Brings Silicon Valley Mentality to Duke

An idea cannot be inherently good or bad, argues Salman Azhar, Entrepreneur in Residence, Associate Professor of Computer Science, and alumnus of Duke University. Instead, the success of an idea hinges on the steps an entrepreneur takes in the conversion from an idea to a plan.

On October 14, Azhar explained to students the evolution of a tech start-up from the idea phase to conception.

facebook-vs-myspaceAzhar emphasized implementation details over the idea itself, citing the example of MySpace and Facebook: neither is conceptually better than the other, yet today, only Facebook stands successful.

Azhar introduced the Duke students to the Silicon Valley mindset, a set of conventions and pieces of advice to make it in the competitive world of start-ups. Azhar himself has expertise in the entrepreneurial round, citing his two successful start-ups. Now he has chosen to dedicate his time to giving back and encouraging the future generation of young people to put their ideas into action.

Azhar began his talk by probing students to consider motivation, to ask themselves at their cores why they should join the start-up world. He urges, “Don’t lie down” and work for established companies like IBM, Microsoft, or even Google– rather, try something on your own. Azhar points out that the challenges involved at a start-up exceed in scope those one might otherwise face, which may be limited to converting functional specifications into code.

“Brand yourself,” he said. Create an image of yourself, just as Apple creates one for its products. A brand, he notes, is a representation of one’s unique view of the world. The creation of a brand, ironically enough, ought to come from a certain degree of introspection. Such introspection should additionally serve to seek out complementary partners with whom to start a company.

Screen Shot 2015-10-15 at 1.39.32 PMIn a guidebook-like manner, Azhar outlined the major  concerns of a start-up process, including bringing an idea to pitch, obtaining funding and defining an exit strategy.

He emphasized the three rules for start-ups: 1. Don’t use your own money, 2. Don’t use your own money, and 3. Don’t use your own money.

He used Swyp, a start-up for alternative payment, to demonstrate examples of technical risks and business risks. In regard to the latter, he questions, “Why will the people pick your company?” And even, “Why will they make a decision?” challenging one to think about how to create a product  compelling enough to move consumers to act.

After doling out tips on approaching investors for funding and  explaining funding rounds, Azhar again returned to the question of the practicality of ideas. With respect to a decision between selling the startup or going public in an IPO, Azhar asserts that the only reason to go for an acquisition is if you run out of ideas, or if someone else can execute your idea better than you can.

Thus, Azhar presents the creation of start-ups as idea management, if you will. Only with such a practical approach can one hope for the survival of his idea in the rough and tumble of Silicon Valley.

By Olivia Zhu Olivia_Zhu_100

Life and Death on the Frontiers of Global Health

IMG_3461Vision, according to Mark Dybul, is the biggest problem in public health.

Dybul, the Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, and former head of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), appeared at Duke on Sept. 16 for the Sanford School of Public Policy’s Egan lecture. The event was co-sponsored by the Duke Global Health Institute and the Kenan Institute for Ethics.

The format was like a meeting of the minds as Michael Gerson, Washington Post columnist, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, and Pamela and Jack Egan Visiting Professor at Duke, interviewed Dybul.

Gerson and Dybul probed fundamental questions such as how to effectively empower health efforts, socioeconomic disparity in health aid efforts, the role of science in public health, and trends in AIDS treatment methods.

Dybul opened by painting a picture of the landscape of AIDS in Africa in the epoch before serious AIDS efforts. He described the streets of Uganda “clogged with coffins,” an atmosphere thick with the expectation of imminent death.  He said the implications of this desolate psychology spread far beyond the human body, decreasing motivation for education or investment.

Dybul stressed that a program focused on vision, methods, and results is necessary in order to alleviate the AIDS epidemic, rather than a paternalistic approach gauged  only by the sheer amount of money given to an issue and the amount of aid distributed.

He said that bilateral aid organizations, many of which are based in the U.S., are necessarily attached to governments across oceans and thus inspire a certain degree of distrust with local communities. Global Fund, for example, serves as a mechanism for countries to organize anti-AIDS efforts, rather than the directing organization.

The reasons for the measured success of Global Fund, Dybul admitted, are unclear, largely due to the inability of separating variables in live populations. “Public health is art,” he added. The positive impact of Global Fund is indisputable, with decreased numbers of casual sex partners and increased use of condoms contributing to the reduced spread of AIDS in African nations.

When Gerson asked about the future of public health, Dybul predicted a relative increase in the prevalence of non-communicable disease; however, he forecasted that the more important question will be: “Who pays [for treatment]?”

Dybul also projected a vision of a worldwide, cohesive data management system to provide surveillance as a preventative measure in communities — “being smart” about epidemics. Dybul emphasized that public health extends deep into the community and suggested that the term “global health” may evolve into “country health” as relief efforts become more locally-based.

Dybul advised aspiring students to focus on what excites you, yet be open to new opportunities.

View a video of the entire talk (1:18) —



Olivia_Zhu_100 By Olivia Zhu

An Exploration in Tech: From Altamira to Google

Six countries and eight months later, I’m finally back at Duke after a junior-spring hiatus for a study abroad program in Spain. My experience abroad, while just as colorful as the Spanish

View of Spanish street from Plaza Mayor, Madrid

View of Spanish street from Plaza Mayor, Madrid

stereotype (and equally filled with paella and sangria), extended much deeper than beaches and bullfights. Fulfilling my Trinity requirements of social sciences through my Duke in Madrid courses unveiled challenging perspectives on memory, particularly of the Spanish Civil War, and on the psychology of the Spanish population and its individuals.

One of the greatest themes throughout my experience was the evolution of technology. Our Duke cohort of eight students visited the Cave of Altamira in rainy, northern Spain, which holds some of the world’s most famous, miraculously preserved cave paintings. More than anything, the physicality of the paintings, the oldest of which dated 35,600 years old, shocked me. The sheer passage of time embodied by the paintings eclipsed our human history twenty-fold, and our generation many times over.

In Altamira, I witnessed the evolution of perspective, as the cave artists experimented with foreground and background using raised and lowered ridges of the cave; simultaneously, my perspective on self-importance, at least in comparison to the whole of human history, changed. Not only is a lifespan negligible compared to the age of the world, but it is also only a drop in the bucket of the world’s population. A scientific discovery only makes an impact in the context of the accumulation of the world’s intelligence and knowledge, just as one cave painting gains more meaning from the context of all the paintings, older and newer, around it.

In May, I transitioned to a much more temporal study of technology in the Silicon Valley,

Photo credit: Robert Hahn

Photo credit: Robert Hahn

specifically as a software engineering intern at Google. I worked on the Fonts and Text team under Internationalization, where I sharpened my engineering prowess under a canopy of red, yellow, and blue umbrellas amid a sea of cheerful bike bell rings. While I met a wide range of interns and engineers working on a range of fascinating, impactful projects, I definitely applied my mind in a much more focused, practical manner. A modern day in engineering definitely stands in stark contrast to the lofty speculation I undertook in Spain.

Back in Durham, as I navigate foreign pathways, puzzle at the changed food venues, and double-take at new Duke buildings that seem to have popped up out of nowhere after construction, I’m thoroughly happy to have returned to Duke with a fresh mindset and renewed energy. After time away, the research that occurs here only seems more incredible, and I’m excited to explore it and write about it in the coming year.

Olivia_Zhu_100Post by Olivia Zhu, senior, Biophysics major and Computer Science minor

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