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

Students exploring the Innovation Co-Lab

Author: Robin Smith Page 1 of 8

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

Putting Stronger Guardrails Around AI

AI regulation is ramping up worldwide. Duke AI law and policy expert Lee Tiedrich discusses where we’ve been and where we’re going.
AI regulation is ramping up worldwide. Duke AI law and policy expert Lee Tiedrich discusses where we’ve been and where we’re going.

DURHAM, N.C. — It’s been a busy season for AI policy.

The rise of ChatGPT unleashed a frenzy of headlines around the promise and perils of artificial intelligence, and raised concerns about how AI could impact society without more rules in place.

Consequently, government intervention entered a new phase in recent weeks as well. On Oct. 30, the White House issued a sweeping executive order regulating artificial intelligence.

The order aims to establish new standards for AI safety and security, protect privacy and equity, stand up for workers and consumers, and promote innovation and competition. It’s the U.S. government’s strongest move yet to contain the risks of AI while maximizing the benefits.

“It’s a very bold, ambitious executive order,” said Duke executive-in-residence Lee Tiedrich, J.D., who is an expert in AI law and policy.

Tiedrich has been meeting with students to unpack these and other developments.

“The technology has advanced so much faster than the law,” Tiedrich told a packed room in Gross Hall at a Nov. 15 event hosted by Duke Science & Society.

“I don’t think it’s quite caught up, but in the last few weeks we’ve taken some major leaps and bounds forward.”

Countries around the world have been racing to establish their own guidelines, she explained.

The same day as the US-led AI pledge, leaders from the Group of Seven (G7) — which includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — announced that they had reached agreement on a set of guiding principles on AI and a voluntary code of conduct for companies.

Both actions came just days before the first ever global summit on the risks associated with AI, held at Bletchley Park in the U.K., during which 28 countries including the U.S. and China pledged to cooperate on AI safety.

“It wasn’t a coincidence that all this happened at the same time,” Tiedrich said. “I’ve been practicing law in this area for over 30 years, and I have never seen things come out so fast and furiously.”

The stakes for people’s lives are high. AI algorithms do more than just determine what ads and movie recommendations we see. They help diagnose cancer, approve home loans, and recommend jail sentences. They filter job candidates and help determine who gets organ transplants.

Which is partly why we’re now seeing a shift in the U.S. from what has been a more hands-off approach to “Big Tech,” Tiedrich said.

Tiedrich presented Nov. 15 at an event hosted by Duke Science & Society.

In the 1990s when the internet went public, and again when social media started in the early 2000s, “many governments — the U.S. included — took a light touch to regulation,” Tiedrich said.

But this moment is different, she added.

“Now, governments around the world are looking at the potential risks with AI and saying, ‘We don’t want to do that again. We are going to have a seat at the table in developing the standards.’”

Power of the Purse

Biden’s AI executive order differs from laws enacted by Congress, Tiedrich acknowledged in a Nov. 3 meeting with students in Pratt’s Master of Engineering in AI program.

Congress continues to consider various AI legislative proposals, such as the recently introduced bipartisan Artificial Intelligence Research, Innovation and Accountability Act, “which creates a little more hope for Congress,” Tiedrich said.

What gives the administration’s executive order more force is that “the government is one of the big purchasers of technology,” Tiedrich said.

“They exercise the power of the purse, because any company that is contracting with the government is going to have to comply with those standards.”

“It will have a trickle-down effect throughout the supply chain,” Tiedrich said.

The other thing to keep in mind is “technology doesn’t stop at borders,” she added.

“Most tech companies aren’t limiting their market to one or two particular jurisdictions.”

“So even if the U.S. were to have a complete change of heart in 2024” and the next administration were to reverse the order, “a lot of this is getting traction internationally,” she said.

“If you’re a U.S. company, but you are providing services to people who live in Europe, you’re still subject to those laws and regulations.”

From Principles to Practice

Tiedrich said a lot of what’s happening today in terms of AI regulation can be traced back to a set of guidelines issued in 2019 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, where she serves as an AI expert.

These include commitments to transparency, inclusive growth, fairness, explainability and accountability.

For example, “we don’t want AI discriminating against people,” Tiedrich said. “And if somebody’s dealing with a bot, they ought to know that. Or if AI is involved in making a decision that adversely affects somebody, say if I’m denied a loan, I need to understand why and have an opportunity to appeal.”

“The OECD AI principles really are the North Star for many countries in terms of how they develop law,” Tiedrich said.

“The next step is figuring out how to get from principles to practice.”

“The executive order was a big step forward in terms of U.S. policy,” Tiedrich said. “But it’s really just the beginning. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

New Blogger Noor Nazir: Mental Health With a Pakistani Twist

My name is Door but replace the ‘D’ with an ‘N’.

Yes, I’m Noor and yes again, that is exactly how I introduced my freshman self to everyone in my year. Before you wonder, it’s an Arabic name and no I’m not from the Middle East! I’m a die-hard Pakistani with an overwhelming – and embarrassing – amount of love for Taylor Swift and Local Pakistani Music (stream Talha Anjum, you’ll be surprised!).

My personality mainly encompasses my thirteen-month-old niece, Alaya. I like to think she’s my mini doppelganger (she is not) and the last eight months of my life have been encapsulated by her cute presence, smelly diapers and charming smile. We spend most of our time listening to Taylor Swift, and – sometimes – the nursery rhyme, One Little Finger.  Other times, we play the guitar and sing for fun (your average Duke freshman).

Although, contrary to the ‘average Duke freshman’ who is sure about the trajectory of their next twenty years, I am not – at all. I find my mind wandering to several distinct fields of interest; whenever a classmate asks me “but where is your mind really at?”, my deliberate and circumspect answer is always “four to be exact: economics, political science, psychology and public policy”’. This answer is invariably met by an overt facial expression screaming their internal thought “oh so she’s really not sure”. But that side eye is beside the point since that uncertainty is precisely what led me to the Duke Research Blog.

In high school, whether it was the debate club or my interest in mental health, I always found a research angle to it. For debate, I’d research different case studies in order to formulate argumentation and rebuttals; for mental health, I’d utilize such case studies and would recreate what worked. My proudest creation, the Safe Space Society (a society in my alma matter, International School Lahore), was nothing short of a camaraderie and a community fostered with love and empathy. In my eyes, such a creation was only made possible because of extensive and life-long research by dedicated professionals.

Not only is research the perfect way to navigate my interests in a fulfilling manner, but it also acts as the tunnel vision to a transfigured world. Since my navigation wishes to find its destination in a declared major, I’m incredibly excited to write and learn about research revolving science, mental health, and anything Duke brings my way.

I am, however, most excited to translate and decode complex and seemingly mundane ideas in a nuanced and amusing way. The blog seems to be on a mission to make potential engineers excited about the next big thing in mental health research; this is a mission I’m excited and honored to take part in.  To sum it up, my goal at Duke Research Blog is to attend the research events you don’t want to and then write about them to make you regret not attending those events!

– A serious warning: you will see me bringing a Pakistani twist to every article I write! It’s just what us Pakistanis do (for a sample look at the sentence above). –

Noor Nazir, Class of 2027
Noor Nazir, Class of 2027

Helping People and Wildlife Coexist in Ways That Benefit Both, Using Math

Duke team wins top prize in mathematical modeling contest


Safari-goers watch a pride of lions in the Maasai Mara, a famous game reserve in Kenya. Credit: Ray in Manila, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Safari-goers watch a pride of lions in the Maasai Mara, a famous game reserve in Kenya. Credit: Ray in Manila, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Of all the math competitions for college students, the annual Mathematical Contest in Modeling (MCM) is one of the biggest. And this year, Duke’s team took home a coveted top prize.

Undergraduates Erik Novak, ’24, Nicolas Salazar, ’23, and Enzo Moraes Mescall, ’24, represented the Blue Devils at this year’s contest, a grueling 4-day event where teams of undergraduates use their mathematical modeling skills to solve a real-world problem. The results are finally in, and the Duke team was chosen as one of the top 22 outstanding winners out of more than 11,200 teams worldwide.

Their task: to analyze some of the challenges facing a nature reserve in Kenya known as the Maasai Mara. This region is named for the local Maasai people, a tribe of semi-nomadic people who make a living by herding cattle. It’s also teeming with wildlife. Each year, more than a million wildebeests, zebras and gazelles travel in a loop from neighboring Tanzania into Kenya’s Maasai Mara Reserve and back, following the seasonal rains in search of fresh grass to eat.

Some 300,000 safari-goers also flock to the area to witness the massive migration, making it a major player in Kenya’s billion-dollar tourism industry. But protecting and managing the land for the benefit of both wildlife and people is a delicate balancing act.

The reserve relies on tourism revenue to protect the animals that live there. If tourism slumps — due to political unrest in Kenya, or the COVID-19 pandemic — desperate communities living around the park resort to poaching to get by, threatening the very wildlife that tourism depends on.

Poachers aren’t the only problem: wild animals such as lions, leopards and elephants sometimes venture into human settlements in search of food. Conservationists must strike a balance between protecting these animals and managing the dangers they pose by raiding crops or killing valuable domestic livestock.

Tourism is a mixed blessing, too. While safari-goers bring money into the region, they can also disturb the animals and pollute the Mara River, and off-road drivers can erode the soil with their jeeps.

The mission facing the Duke team was to identify ways to mitigate such conflicts between wildlife and people.

From left: Teammates Erik Novak, ’24, Nicolas Salazar, ’23, and Enzo Moraes Mescall ’24 finished in the top 0.1% in the 2023 Mathematical Contest in Modeling.

This year’s contest ran over a single weekend in February. Camped out on the third floor of Perkins library, the team of three worked 12 hours a day, fueled by a steady supply of Red Bull and poke bowls. During that time, they built a model, came up with budget and policy recommendations, and wrote a 25-page report for the Kenyan Tourism and Wildlife Committee, all in less than 96 hours.

They built a mathematical model consisting of a system of six ordinary differential equations. According to the model’s predictions, they said, it should theoretically be possible to increase the reserve’s animal populations by about 25%, reduce environmental degradation by 20%, nearly eliminate retaliatory lion killings, and cut poaching rates in half — all while increasing the average yearly flow of tourists by 7.5%.

Participating in a smaller-but-similar contest last fall, the Triangle Competition in Mathematical Modeling, helped them prepare. “It’s kind of like a practice for the MCM,” Salazar said.

Veronica Ciocanel

“They did not win that contest, but they took everything they learned and look what they did with it. I’m very proud,” said assistant professor of mathematics and biology Veronica Ciocanel, who coached the team and co-organized the Triangle competition.

In addition to finishing in the top 0.1% of competitors, the Duke team got three additional awards for their performance; the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) award, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) prize, and an International COMAP Scholarship Award of $10,000.

The problems in these contests tend to be much more open-ended than typical coursework. “We didn’t know what the solution was supposed to be or what tools to use,” Novak said.

Modeling, computation and coding skills are certainly important, Ciocanel said. “But really what matters more is practice, teamwork, and communicating their results in a written report. Students who have a solid course background don’t need to do anything else to prepare, they just need to be creative about using what they know from the courses they already took.”

“Use what you have and work well together,” Ciocanel said. “That I think is the most important thing.”

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

Rewilding the Gut

Processed foods and overuse of antibiotics can wreak havoc on the trillions of bacteria and other microbes that inhabit the gut. A new study of the gut microbiomes of lemurs looks at whether reconnecting with nature can help restore this internal ecosystem to a more natural state. Credit: Sally Bornbusch.

Modern life messes with the microbiome -– the trillions of bacteria and other microbes that live inside the body. Could reconnecting with nature bring this internal ecosystem back into balance?

A new study suggests it can, at least in lemurs. Led by Duke Ph.D. alumnus Sally Bornbusch and her graduate advisor Christine Drea, the research team collected fecal samples from more than 170 ring-tailed lemurs living in various conditions in Madagascar: some were living in the wild, some were kept as pets, and some were rescued from the pet and tourism industries and then relocated to a rescue center in southwestern Madagascar where they ate a more natural diet and had less exposure to people.

Collecting fecal samples in Madagascar

Then the researchers sequenced DNA from the fecal samples to identify their microbial makeup. They found that the longer lemurs lived at the rescue center, the more similar their gut microbes were to those of their wild counterparts. Former pet lemurs with more time at the rescue center also showed fewer signs of antibiotic resistance.

By “rewilding” the guts of captive animals, researchers say we may be able to better prime them for success, whether after rescue or before translocation or reintroduction into the wild.

This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (1945776, 1749465), the Triangle Center for Evolutionary Medicine, Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Fund and Lemur Love.

CITATION: “Microbial Rewilding in the Gut Microbiomes of Captive Ring-Tailed Lemurs (Lemur catta) in Madagascar,” Sally L. Bornbusch, Tara A. Clarke, Sylvia Hobilalaina, Honore Soatata Reseva, Marni LaFleur & Christine M. Drea. Scientific Reports, Dec. 27, 2022. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-26861-0.

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

Modeling the COVID-19 Roller Coaster

A Duke team looks at the math behind COVID’s waves as new coronavirus variants continue to emerge. Credit: @ink-drop

DURHAM, N.C. — First it was Alpha. Then Delta. Now Omicron and its alphabet soup of subvariants. In the three years since the coronavirus pandemic started, every few months or so a new strain seems to go around, only to be outdone by the next one.

If the constant rise and fall of new coronavirus variants has left you feeling dizzy, you’re not alone. But where most people see a pandemic roller coaster, one Duke team sees a mathematical pattern.

In a new study, a group of students led by Duke mathematician Rick Durrett studied the calculus behind the pandemic’s waves.

Published Nov. 2022 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, their study got its start as part of an 8-week summer research program called DOmath, now known as Math+, which brings undergraduates together to collaborate on a faculty-led project.

Their mission: to build and analyze simple mathematical models to understand the spread of COVID-19 as one strain after another popped up and then rose to outcompete the others.

In an interview about their research, project manager and Duke Ph.D. student Hwai-Ray Tung pointed to a squiggly line showing the number of confirmed COVID cases per capita in the U.S. between January 2020 and October 2022.

The COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded in waves. Adapted from The New York Times, July 18, 2022

“You can see very distinct humps,” Tung said.

The COVID pandemic has unfolded in a series of surges and lulls — spikes in infection followed by downturns in case counts.

The ups and downs are partly explained by factors such as behavior, relaxation of public policies, and waning immunity from vaccines. But much of the roller coaster has been driven by changes to the coronavirus itself.

All viruses change over time, evolving mutations in their genetic makeup as they spread and replicate. Most mutations are harmless, but every so often some of them give the virus an edge: Enabling it to break into cells more easily than other strains, better evade immunity from vaccines and past infection, or make more copies of itself in order to spread more effectively.

Take the Delta variant, for example. When it first started going around in the U.S. in May 2021, it was responsible for just 1% of COVID cases. But thanks to mutations that helped the virus evade antibodies and infect cells more easily, it quickly tore across the country. Within two months it had outcompeted all the other variants and rose to the top spot, causing 94% of new infections.

“The natural question to ask is: What’s going on with the transition between these different variants?” Tung said.

For their study the team developed a simple epidemic model called an SIR model, which uses differential equations to compute the spread of disease over time.

SIR models work by categorizing individuals as either susceptible to getting sick, currently infected, or recovered. The team modified this model to have two types of infected individuals and two types of recovered individuals, one for each of two circulating strains.

The model assumes that each infectious person spreads the virus to a certain number of new people per day (while sparing others), and that, each day, a certain fraction of the currently infected group recovers.

In the study, the team applied the SIR model to data from a database called GISAID, which contains SARS-CoV-2 virus sequences from the pandemic. By looking at the coronavirus’s genetic code, researchers can tell which variants are causing infection.

Study co-author Jenny Huang ’23 pointed to a series of S-shaped curves showing the fraction of infections due to each strain from one week to the next, from January 2021 to June 2022.

When they plotted the data as points on a graph, they found that it followed a logistic differential equation as each new variant emerged, rose steeply, and — within six to 10 weeks — quickly displaced its predecessors, only to be taken over later by even more aggressive or contagious strains.

Durrett said it’s the mathematical equivalent of something biologists call a selective sweep, when natural selection increases a variant’s frequency from low to high, until nearly everyone getting stick is infected with the same strain.

“I’ve been interested in epidemic modeling since the end of freshman year when COVID started,” said Huang, a senior who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in statistics next year with support from a prestigious Quad Fellowship.

They’re not all typical math majors, Durrett said of his team. Co-author Sofia Hletko, ’25, was a walk-on to the rowing team. Laura Boyle ’24 was a Cameron Crazie.

For some team members it was their first experience with mathematical research: “I came in having no idea what a differential equation was,” Boyle said. “And by the end, I was the person in the group explaining that part of our presentation to everyone.”

Boyle says one question she keeps getting asked is: what about the next COVID surge?

“It’s very hard to say what will happen,” Boyle said.

The teams says their research can’t predict future waves. Part of the reason is the scanty data on the actual number of infections.

Countries have dialed back on their surveillance testing, and fewer places are doing the genomic sequencing necessary to identify different strains.

“We don’t know the nature of future mutations,” Durrett said. “Changes in people’s behavior will have a significant impact too.”

“The point of this paper wasn’t to predict; rather it was to explain why the waves were occurring,” Huang said. “We were trying to explain a complicated phenomenon in a simple way.”

This research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (DMS 1809967) and by Duke’s Department of Mathematics.

CITATION: “Selective Sweeps in SARS-CoV-2 Variant Competition,” Laura Boyle, Sofia Hletko, Jenny Huang, June Lee, Gaurav Pallod, Hwai-Ray Tung, and Richard Durrett. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nov. 3, 2022. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2213879119.

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

For Weary Scholars, a Moment to Regroup, Reconnect…and Write

DURHAM, N.C. — English professor Charlotte Sussman doesn’t get much time in her role as department chair to work on her latest book project, an edited collection of essays on migration in and out of Europe.

“At least not during daylight hours,” Sussman said.

But a recent workshop brought a welcome change to that. Sussman was one of 22 faculty who gathered Dec. 13 for an end-of-semester writing retreat hosted by the Duke Faculty Write Program.

Duke faculty and staff gather for an end-of-semester writing retreat.

Most of them know all too well the burnout faculty and students face at the end of the semester. But for a few precious hours, they hit pause on the constant onslaught of emails, meetings, grading and other duties to work alongside fellow writers.

The participants sat elbow-to-elbow around small tables in a sunlit room at the Duke Integrative Medicine Center. Some scribbled on pads of paper; others peered over their laptops.

Each person used the time to focus on a specific writing project. Sussman aimed to tackle an introduction for her 34-essay collection. Others spent the day working on a grant application, a book chapter, a course proposal, a conference presentation.

Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, Ph.D.
Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, Ph.D.

“We have so many negative associations with writing because there’s always something more to do,” said associate professor of the practice Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, who directs the program. “I want to change the way people experience writing.”

Ahern-Dodson encouraged the group to break their projects into small, specific tasks as they worked toward their goals. It might be reading a journal article, drafting an outline, organizing some notes, even just creating or finding a file.

After a brief workshop, she kicked off a 60-minute writing session. “Now we write!” she said.

The retreat is the latest installment in a series that Ahern-Dodson has been leading for over 10 years. In a typical week, most of these scholars wouldn’t find themselves in the same room. There were faculty and administrators from fields as diverse as history, African and African American Studies, law, psychology, classics, biostatistics. New hires sitting alongside senior scholars with decades at Duke.

Peggy Nicholson, J.D., Clinical Professor of Law, writing alongside colleagues from across campus

“I really like the diversity of the group,” said Carolyn Lee, Professor of the Practice of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. “It’s a supportive environment without any judgement. They all have the same goal: they want to get some writing done.”

Sussman said such Faculty Write program get-togethers have been “indispensable” to bringing some of her writing projects over the finish line.

Participants say the program not only fosters productivity, but also a sense of connection and belonging. Take Cecilia Márquez, assistant professor in the Duke History Department. She joined the Duke faculty in 2019, but within months the world went into COVID-19 lockdown.

“This was my way to meet colleagues,” said Márquez, who has since started a writing group for Latinx scholars as an offshoot.

The writing retreats are free for participants, thanks to funding from the Office of the Dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the Thompson Writing Program. Participants enjoy lunch, coaching and community in what’s normally a solitary activity.

“I appreciate the culture of collaboration,” said David Landes, who came to Duke this year as Assistant Professor of the Practice in Duke’s Thompson Writing Program. “In the humanities our work is intensely individualized.”

Assistant Professor of Biostatistics & Bioinformatics Hwanhee Hong (left) and Adam Rosenblatt, Associate Professor of the Practice in International Comparative Studies (right)

Retreats are one of many forms of support offered by the Faculty Write program: there are also writing groups and workshops on topics such as balancing teaching and scholarship or managing large research projects.

“One of the distinguishing features of Faculty Write is the community that extends beyond one event,” Ahern-Dodson said. “Many retreats are reunions.”

After two hours of writing, Ahern-Dodson prompted the group to take a break. Some got up to stretch or grab a snack; others stepped outside to chat or stroll through the center’s labyrinth at the edge of Duke Forest.

It’s more than just dedicated writing time, Ahern-Dodson said. It’s also “learning how to work with the time they have.”

The retreats offer tips from behavioral psychology, writing studies, and other disciplines on time management, motivation, working with reader feedback, and other topics.

As they wrap up the last writing session of the day, Ahern-Dodson talks about how to keep momentum.

“Slow-downs and writing block are normal,” Ahern-Dodson said. Maybe how you wrote before isn’t working anymore, or you’re in a rut. Perhaps you’re not sure how to move forward, or maybe writing simply feels like a slog.

“There are some things you could try to get unstuck,” Ahern-Dodson said. Consider changing up your routine: when and where you write, or how long each writing session lasts.

“Protect your writing time as you would any other meeting,” Ahern-Dodson said.

Sharing weekly goals and accomplishments with other people can help too, she added.

“Celebrate each win.”

Ultimately, Ahern-Dodson says, the focus is not on productivity but on meaning, progress and satisfaction over time.

“It’s all about building a sustainable writing practice,” she said.

Ahern-Dodson leads an end-of-semester writing retreat for Duke scholars.

Coming soon: On Friday, Jan. 27 from 12-1 p.m., join Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement Abbas Benmamoun for a conversation about how writing works for him as a scholar and administrator. In person in Rubenstein Library 249 (Carpenter Fletcher Room)

Get Involved: Faculty and staff are invited to sign up for writing groups for spring 2023 here.

Learn more about sustainable writing practices: “The Productivity Trap: Why We Need a New Model of Faculty Writing Support,” Jennifer Ahern-Dodson and Monique Dufour. Change, January/February 2023.

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

Traveling With Friends Helps Even Mixed-Up Migrators Find Their Way

North American monarch butterflies migrate each winter to just a few mountaintops in central Mexico, with help from an internal compass that guides them home. New computer modeling research offers clues to how migrating animals get to where they need to go, even when their magnetic compass leads them astray. Credit: Jesse Granger, Duke University

DURHAM, N.C. — Some of us live and die by our phone’s GPS. But if we can’t get a signal or lose battery power, we get lost on our way to the grocery store.

Yet animals can find their way across vast distances with amazing accuracy.

Take monarch butterflies, for example. Millions of them fly up to 2,500 miles across the eastern half of North America to the same overwintering grounds each year, using the Earth’s magnetic field to help them reach a small region in central Mexico that’s about the size of Disney World.

Or sockeye salmon: starting out in the open ocean they head home each year to spawn. Using geomagnetic cues they manage to identify their home stream from among thousands of possibilities, often returning to within feet of their birthplace.

Now, new research offers clues to how migrating animals get to where they need to go, even when they lose the signal or their inner compass leads them astray. The key, said Duke Ph.D. student Jesse Granger: “they can get there faster and more efficiently if they travel with a friend.”

When their internal compasses go bad, migrating animals like these sockeye salmon don’t stop to ask directions. But they succeed if they stay with their fellow travelers. Credit: Jonny Armstrong, USGS

Many animals can sense the Earth’s magnetic field and use it as a compass. What has puzzled scientists, Granger said, is the magnetic sense is not fail-safe. These signals coming from the planet’s molten core are subtle at the surface. Phenomena such as solar storms and man-made electromagnetic noise can disrupt them or drown them out.

It’s as if the ‘needle’ of their inner compass sometimes gets thrown off or points in random directions, making it hard to get a reliable reading. How do some animals manage to chart a course with such a noisy sensory system and still get it right?

“This is the question that keeps me up at night,” said Granger, who did the work with her adviser, Duke Biology Professor Sönke Johnsen.

Multiple hypotheses have been put forward to explain how they do it. Perhaps, some scientists say, migrating animals average multiple measurements taken over time to get more accurate information.

Or maybe they switch from consulting their magnetic compass to using other ways of navigating as they near the end of their journey — such as smell, or landmarks — to narrow in on their goal.

In a paper published Nov. 16 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the Duke team wanted to pit these ideas against a third possibility: That some animals still manage to find their way, even when their compass readings are unreliable, simply by sticking  together.

To test the idea, they created a computer model to simulate virtual groups of migrating animals, and analyzed how different navigation tactics affected their performance.

The animals in the model begin their journey spread out over a wide area, encountering others along the route. The direction an animal takes at each step along the way is a balance between two competing impulses: to band together and stay with the group, or to head towards a specific destination, but with some degree of error in finding their bearings.

The scientists found that, even when the simulated animals started to make more mistakes in reading their magnetic map, the ones that stuck with their neighbors still reached their destination, whereas those that didn’t care about staying together didn’t make it.

“We showed that animals are better at navigating in a group than they are at navigating alone,” Granger said.

Even when their magnetic compass veered them off course, more than 70% of animals in the model still made it home, simply by joining with others and following their lead. Other ways of compensating didn’t measure up, or would need to guide them perfectly for most of the journey to accomplish the same feat.

But the strategy breaks down when species decline in number, the researchers found. The team showed that animals who need friends to find their way are more likely to get lost when their population shrinks below a certain density.

Prior to the 1950s, tens of thousands of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles could be seen nesting near Rancho Nuevo, Mexico on a single day. By the mid-1980s the number of nesting females had dropped to a few hundred.

“If the population density starts dropping, it takes them longer and longer along their migratory route before they find anyone else,” Granger said.

Previous studies have made similar predictions, but the Duke team’s model could help future researchers quantify the effect for different species. In some runs of the model, for example, they found that if a hypothetical population dropped by 50% — akin to what monarchs have experienced in the last decade, and some salmon in the last century — 37% fewer of the remaining individuals would make it to their destination.

“This may be an underappreciated aspect of concern when studying population loss,” Granger said.

This research was supported in part by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (FA9550-20-1-0399) and by a National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate Fellowship to Jesse Granger.

CITATION: “Collective Movement as a Solution to Noisy Navigation and its Vulnerability to Population Loss,” Jesse Granger and Sönke Johnsen. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Nov. 16, 2022. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2022.1910

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

Feeling Lonely? What We Want From Our Relationships Can Change With Age

Not feeling the holiday cheer this year? The gap between expectations and reality can leave people feeling lonely. Photo by madartzgraphics.

Not everyone’s holiday plans resemble a Hallmark card.

If the “most wonderful time of the year” isn’t your reality, you’re not alone. You might have an idea of a festive picture-perfect holiday season, but what actually transpires doesn’t always measure up.

And that’s where loneliness comes from, says King’s College London graduate student Samia Akhter-Khan, first author of a new study on the subject.

“Loneliness results from a discrepancy between expected and actual social relationships,” Akhter-Khan said.

Together with Duke psychology and neuroscience Ph.D. Leon Li, Akhter-Khan and colleagues co-authored a paper on why people feel lonely, particularly in later life, and what we can do about it.

“The problem that we identified in current research was that we haven’t really thought about: What do people expect from their relationships?” Akhter-Khan said. “We work with this definition of expectations, but we don’t really identify what those expectations are and how they change across cultures or over the lifespan.”

In every relationship, we expect certain basics. We all want people in our lives who we can ask for help. Friends we can call on when we need them. Someone to talk to. People who “get” us. Someone we can trust. Companions with whom we can share fun experiences.

But the team’s theory, called the Social Relationship Expectations Framework, suggests that older people may have certain relationship expectations that have gone overlooked.

Akhter-Khan’s first clue that the causes of loneliness might be more complex than meets the eye came during a year she spent studying aging in Myanmar from 2018 to 2019. At first, she assumed people generally wouldn’t feel lonely — after all, “people are so connected and live in a very close-knit society. People have big families; they’re often around each other. Why would people feel lonely?”

But her research suggested otherwise. “It actually turns out to be different,” she said. People can still feel lonely, even if they don’t spend much time alone.

What efforts to reduce loneliness have neglected, she said, is how our relationship expectations change as we get older. What we want from social connections in, say, our 30s isn’t what we want in our 70s.

The researchers identified two age-specific expectations that haven’t been taken into account. For one, older adults want to feel respected. They want people to listen to them, to take an interest in their experiences and learn from their mistakes. To appreciate what they’ve been through and the obstacles they have overcome.

They also want to contribute: to give back to others and their community and pass along traditions or skills through teaching and mentoring, volunteering, caregiving, or other meaningful activities.

Finding ways to fulfill these expectations as we get older can go a long way towards combating loneliness in later life, but research has largely left them out.

“They’re not part of the regular scales for loneliness,” Li said.

Part of the reason for the oversight may be that often the labor and contributions of older people are unaccounted for in typical economic indices, said Akhter-Khan, who worked in 2019-20 as a graduate research assistant for a Bass Connections project at Duke on how society values care in the global economy.

“Ageism and negative aging stereotypes don’t help,” she added. A 2016 World Health Organization survey spanning 57 countries found that 60% of respondents said that older adults aren’t well respected.

Loneliness isn’t unique to older people. “It is a young people’s problem as well,” Akhter-Khan said. “If you look at the distribution of loneliness across the lifespan, there are two peaks, and one is in younger adulthood, and one is an old age.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, world leaders began sounding the alarm on loneliness as a public health issue. Britain became the first country to name a minister for loneliness, in 2018. Japan followed suit in 2021.

That’s because loneliness is more than a feeling – it can have real impacts on health. Persistent loneliness has been associated with higher risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and stroke, and other health problems. Some researchers suggest it’s comparable or riskier than smoking and obesity.

The researchers hope that if we can better understand the factors driving loneliness, we might be better able to address it.

CITATION: “Understanding and Addressing Older Adults’ Loneliness: The Social-Relationship Expectations Framework,” Samia C. Akhter-Khan, Matthew Prina, Gloria Hoi-Yan Wong, Rosie Mayston, and Leon Li. Perspectives on Psychological Science, Nov. 2, 2022. DOI: 10.1177/17456916221127218

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

How to Encourage Preschoolers to Be More Fair, According to Science

Exposing young kids to different opinions or asking them to explain their thinking can have surprising benefits, Duke University researchers find.

DURHAM, N.C. — “But that’s not fair!” If you’re a parent or a teacher, you’ve probably heard this countless times.

To most young children, “fair” simply means treating everyone equally. Kids are quick to say they shouldn’t have to go to bed earlier than a sibling, or put up with more chores or homework than a classmate.

But as children get older, they begin to grasp that sometimes, things can be unequal and still be fair — especially when people have different needs, circumstances, or abilities. Up until 8 to 10 years of age, most children aren’t yet capable of such moral subtlety, but a new study shows they can get closer, with help from a surprising source: disagreement.

For preschoolers, a 20-minute conversation with someone who disagrees with them or who asks them to justify their ideas can foster more nuanced moral calculations about what it means to be “fair.”

That’s the key finding from a new Duke University study that examines how children develop their sense of morality.

Many theorists have proposed that a child’s interactions with other people can shape their growing sense of right and wrong. But experiments to pinpoint exactly what kinds of interactions are most helpful have been lacking, said first author Leon Li, who did the research with developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello as part of his PhD in psychology and neuroscience at Duke.

In a study that appeared this summer in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, the researchers asked 129 children aged 4 to 5 years to discuss simple moral dilemmas with a puppet and try to make the most fair decision.

In one experiment for example, they asked the children to imagine two boys, one of whom missed breakfast, and decide how to split cookies between them at snack time. In another, the question was whether two girls should get in the same amount of trouble for throwing away someone’s lunch, when one of them mistook it for trash.

No matter what the child decided, afterward the puppet responded by either agreeing or disagreeing, and by either asking the child to explain their reasoning or not. Then the researchers observed how the puppet’s responses affected the child’s thinking in future trials.

They found that children who had previously encountered different points of view, or had to justify their decisions, were more likely to favor the more deserving recipient, rather than fall into “fair must mean equal” thinking.

Li cautions that disagreeing with a child or asking them to justify themselves won’t necessarily make them more honest, or hardworking, or generous.

“Those are other domains of morality, but we only found this in fairness,” Li said. “It’s possible it wouldn’t have an effect with, say, social exclusion” or some other aspect of moral behavior that the team didn’t examine.

But when people ask him, ‘is this how I teach my child to be more virtuous?’ — at least when it comes to fairness — “the answer is yes,” Li said.

CITATION: “Disagreement, Justification, and Equitable Moral Judgments: A Brief Training Study,” Leon Li and Michael Tomasello. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, July 14, 2022. DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2022.105494

Robin Smith
by Robin Smith

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