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

Author: Olivia Ares

Dr. Laura Richman is Defining Health by its Social Determinates

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In 2010, the Affordable Care Act sparked a nationwide debate on the extent of responsibility the American government has over our healthcare. But Dr. Laura Richman has been asking that question since long before that. 

Richman is a health psychologist. “I examine psychosocial factors that have an impact on health behaviors and health outcomes,” she explains, sitting across from me at the Law School café. (Neither of us were wearing a cardigan. It was rather hot outside). 

Laura Richman Ph.D. is an associate professor in population health sciences. (image: Scholars@Duke)

Richman is an associate professor at Duke in the Population Health Sciences, an associate of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society, and, coincidentally, my professor in the Science & the Public FOCUS cluster. She co-teaches the course Science, Law, and Policy with Dr. Yousef Zafar, in which we examine the social determinants of health through the lens of cancer screening, diagnosis, and treatment.

After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1997 with a Ph.D. in social psychology, Richman worked at a sort of think-tank for health professionals collaborating on social issues. This inspired her to pursue health research through the lens of social determinants.

“There was a lot of work on substance use, on mental health, on behavioral disorders. That certainly contributed to my continued interest in factors that have an influence on these [health] outcomes,” she said. 

Continuing in this work, she became a research associate at the School of Public Health at Harvard University; Richman described her time at Harvard as “exciting,” which is not a word used by many to describe empirical research environments. “Certainly there’s that really robust relationship between low income, low education, low job status and poor health outcomes, but a lot of those pathways— like the ones we talk about in class, Olivia— had not been studied.” 

She’s referring to the public health concept of ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ solutions. (The river parable goes as follows: when you observe a trend in people drowning in a certain river, you are presented with different ways of solving the problem. You can start pulling people out of the river and saving them one at a time, which is called a “downstream” solution in public health. You can also prevent people from falling into the river, which is called an “upstream” solution.)

(courtesy of SaludAmerica!)

Richman’s professional research explores another crucial social determinant of health we discussed in class: perceived versus actual discrimination. She asked whether marginalization — objectively or subjectively — can affect functioning, “both psychologically and cognitively. Like, how does it affect their thought processes? Their decision-making? Then, how does that affect their health?” You can read her study here

One thing I noted immediately was Richman’s affinity for creative research design. In a lab she headed at Duke, she conducted one experiment with a student that tested the aforementioned effect of marginalization on health decisions. They provided subjects with a choice between unhealthy and healthy snack options after watching a video of, reading a passage about, or imagining members of their community experience discrimination.

In one study we read for Science, Law, and Policy, the stress effect of discrimination towards Arabic-named individuals after 9/11 was measured through the birth outcomes of Arabic-named mothers pregnant during that time. When I asked her about this, she said, “Particularly working with students, I think that they just bring so much energy and creativity to the research. Surveys serve their purpose — I think they’re really important, but I think there are just lots of opportunities to do more with research designs and research questions. I like trying to approach things from a different angle.” 

Richman is also working on a book. She is studying relational health — health as determined by the opioid epidemic, the obesity crisis, and social isolation associated with aging. She hopes her project will be used in classrooms (and by the interested layman), and that the value of social determinants of health is reflected in increased funding dollars, more people interested in health disparities, more focus in medical education on the screening and referral system, and stimulating dialogue among people in positions of power on a policy level.

Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

‘Anonymous Has Viewed Your Profile’: All Networks Lead to Re-Identification

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For half an hour this rainy Wednesday, October 6th, I logged on to a LinkedIn Live series webinar with Dr. Jiaming Xu from the Fuqua School of Business. I sat inside the bridge between Perkins and Bostock, my laptop connected to DukeBlue wifi. I had Instagram open on my phone and was tapping through friends’ stories while I waited for the broadcast to start. I had Google Docs open in another tab to take notes. 

The title of the webinar was “Can Anyone Truly Be Anonymous Online?” 

Xu spoke about “network privacy,” which is “the intersection of network analysis and data privacy.” When you make an account, connect to wifi, share your location, search something online, or otherwise hint at your personal information, you are creating a “user profile”: a network of personal data that hints at your identity. 

You are probably familiar with how social media companies track your decisions to curate a more engaging experience for you (i.e. the reason I scroll through TikTok for 5 minutes, then 30 minutes, then… Oh no! Two hours have gone by). Other companies track other kinds of data— data that isn’t always just for algorithmic manipulation or creepy-accurate Amazon ads (i.e. “Hey! I was just thinking about buying cat litter. How did Mr. Bezos know?”). Your name, work history, date of birth, address, location, and other critical identifying factors can be collected even if you think your profile is scrubbed clean. In a rather on-the-nose anecdote to his LinkedIn audience on Wednesday, Xu explained that in April 2021, over 500 million user profiles on LinkedIn were hacked. Valuable, “sensitive, work-related data,” he noted, was made vulnerable. 

Image courtesy of Flickr

So, what do you have to worry about? I know I tend to not worry about my personal information online; letting companies collect my data benefits me. I can get targeted Google ads about things I’m interested in and cool filters on Snapchat. In a medical setting, Xu said, prediction algorithms may help patients’ health in the long run. But even anonymized and sanitized data can be traced back to you. For further reading: in an essay published in July 2021, philosophers Evan Selinger and Judy Rhee elaborate on the dangers of “normalizing surveillance.”

The meat of Xu’s talk was how your data can be traced back to you. Xu gave three examples. 

The first was a study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas- Austin attempting to identify users submitting “anonymous” reviews for movies on Netflix (keep in mind this was 2007, so picture the red Netflix logo on the DVD box accordingly). To achieve this, they cross-referenced the network of reviews published by Netflix with the network of individuals signed up on IMDB; they matched those who reviewed movies similarly on both platforms with their public profiles on IMDB. You can read more about that specific study here. (For those unafraid of the full research paper, click here). 

Let’s take a pause to learn a new vocab word! “Signatures.” In this example, the signature was users’ movie ratings. See if you can name the signature in the other two examples.

The second example was conducted by the same researchers; to identify users on Twitter who shared their data anonymously, it was simply a matter of cross-referencing the network of Twitter users with Flickr users. If you know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy, you and that group of people are likely to initiate that same chain of following each other on every social media platform you have (it may remind you of the theory that you are connected by “six degrees of separation” from every person on the planet, which, as it turns out, is also supported by social media data). The researchers were able to identify the correct users 30.8% of the time. 

Time for another vocab break! Those users who connect groups of people who know a guy who know a guy who know a guy are called “seeds.” Speaking of which, did you identify the signature in this example? 

Image courtesy of Flickr

The third and final example was my personal favorite because it was the funkiest and creative. Facebook user data— also “scrubbed clean” before being sold to third-party advertisers— was overlain with LinkedIn user data to reveal a network of connections that are repeated. How did they match up those networks, you ask? First, the algorithm assigned a computed score to every individual user based on how many Facebook friends they have and one for every user based on how many LinkedIn connections they have. Then, each user was assigned a list of integers based on their friends’ popularity score. Bet you weren’t expecting that. 

This method sort of improves upon the Twitter/Flickr example, but in addition to overlaying networks and chains of users, it better matches who is who. Since you are likely to know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy, but you are also likely to know all of those guys down the line, following specific chains does not always accurately convey who is who. Unlike the seeds signature, the friends’ popularity signature was able to correctly re-identify users most of the time. 

Sitting in the bridge Wednesday, I was connected to many networks that I wouldn’t think could be used to identify me through my limited public data. Now, I’m not so sure.

So, what’s the lesson here? At the least, it was fun to learn about, even if the ultimate realization leaves us powerless against big data analytics. Your data has monetary value, and it is not as secure as you think: but it may be worth asking whether or not we even have the ability to protect our anonymity.

New Blogger Olivia Ares: Building Bridges

My name is Olivia Ares (she/her), and I’d like to provide the opportunity for you to get to know me better. In true blog post fashion, here are some quick facts at the outset:

  1. I’m from Johnson City, TN, which probably doesn’t mean anything to you unless you’re a fan of Mountain Dew or Logan from Gilmore Girls.
  2. I’m a freshman here at Duke, and I plan on majoring in Evolutionary Anthropology. For now.
  3. My party trick is knowing way too much about celebrities.
  4. I’m half-Cuban, but I’m also a vegetarian, which is a tragedy in seven words. At least I’ll always have moros y christianos.
  5. I play the fiddle; not the violin. What’s the difference, you ask?
  6. Those close to me claim I have a “cardigan problem.” (By that, they mean that I own an obscene amount of cardigans. If you ask me, that sounds like the exact opposite of a problem.)
Pictured here is my green three-quarter sleeve cardigan with flower-shaped buttons, which provides a colorful accent.

You may be asking yourself what interest I could possibly have in being a research blogger, since I’m clearly destined for a future in comedy (or cardigan connoisseurship). And especially since, as you’ll soon learn, I’m not a science person.

Like a lot of people during our year of virtual school, I went through a lifetime of hobby phases in a matter of months. I started with baking, which only lasted until the bread flour ran out. I watched a lot of movies that I had always wanted to see (which often disappointed), and I rewatched a lot of movies I loved (which never disappointed). I tried learning the guitar, but I never practiced enough to build up the right callouses, so I never practiced at all. I discovered a love for puzzles and an utter lack of skill for them. I downloaded The Sims 4 on a free trial, spent months building a super cool house, then deleted the whole game.

My three favorite things in one picture: lavender cold brew, Taylor Swift, and my blue wool cardigan.

The only thing that’s stuck so far has been reading. In middle school, we used to stay up late with a flashlight under our covers to finish books, then abruptly lost all motivation somewhere between The Giver and The Scarlet Letter. I think we forgot along the way that there are no rules to reading; there’s no one to impress. There’s no one to sample your sourdough or judge your twangy, painful acoustic cover of “Three Blind Mice.” Reading is something you do purely for yourself.

Reading makes information and ideas universally accessible; it connects worlds using only ink on a page. There’s this myth that analytical minds are not creative minds and vice versa, and it alienates people: people who would bring such great perspectives to the table if they hadn’t been defined by a checklist of abilities. Reading is for everyone to find what they love and to love what they find (or hate it; one of the great things about doing things for yourself is that you can just quit whenever you want to).

Scientific research, on the other hand, is something produced for everyone. Humans exploring more and more about the world is something that affects all of us, despite the research being conducted only by a select few of us.

My black long-sleeve cardigan is a personal favorite, as it goes with pretty much everything.

Freshman year of high school, I finished chemistry with a B, which was a miracle considering I was rocking a D around November. I had to change my way of looking at the material; I couldn’t remember the makeup of an atom, but I could remember it if I thought about the stories of individuals who built off of each model in succession. I didn’t understand stoichiometry, but I did understand you have to balance equations just like weights on a scale or kids on a see-saw.

My point is: everyone sees things differently. Exclusivity in different fields is fabricated to make information and education elitist, and it is not reflective of individuals’ ability to understand the world. If you want to read about cool science stuff, you shouldn’t feel left out because you’re more of an art history person. If you want to read about cool art history stuff, you shouldn’t feel left out because you’re an aerospace engineer.


So I like to think that I can be that bridge for some people; at the very least, I can do it for myself.

Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

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