Duke Research Blog

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

Author: Robin Smith (Page 1 of 5)

Researcher Turns Wood Into Larger-Than-Life Insects

Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio creates larger-than-life insect sculptures. This wooden mantis was exhibited at the Art Science Gallery in Austin, Texas in 2013.

Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio creates larger-than-life insect sculptures. This wooden mantis was exhibited at the Art Science Gallery in Austin, Texas in 2013.

On a recent spring morning, biologist Alejandro Berrio took a break from running genetic analyses on a supercomputer to talk about an unusual passion: creating larger-than-life insect sculptures.

Berrio is a postdoctoral associate in professor Greg Wray’s lab at Duke. He’s also a woodcarver, having exhibited his shoebox-sized models of praying mantises, wasps, crickets and other creatures in museums and galleries in his hometown and in Austin, Texas, where his earned his Ph.D.

The Colombia-born scientist started carving wood in his early teens, when he got interested in model airplanes. He built them out of pieces of lightweight balsa wood that he bought in craft shops.

When he got to college at the University of Antioquia in Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city, he joined an entomology lab. “One of my first introductions to science was watching insects in the lab and drawing them,” Berrio said. “One day I had an ‘aha’ moment and thought: I can make this. I can make an insect with wings the same way I used to make airplanes.”

Beetle carved by Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio.

His first carvings were of mosquitoes — the main insect in his lab — hand carved from soft balsa wood with an X-Acto knife.

Using photographs for reference, he would sketch the insects from different positions before he started carving.

He worked at his kitchen table, shaping the body from balsa wood or basswood. “I might start with a power saw to make the general form, and then with sandpaper until I started getting the shape I wanted,” Berrio said.

He used metal to join and position the segments in the legs and antennae, then set the joints in place with glue.

“People loved them,” Berrio said. “Scientists were like: Oh, I want a fly. I want a beetle. My professors were giving them to their friends. So I started making them for people and selling them.”

Soon Berrio was carving wooden fungi, dragons, turtles, a snail. “Whatever people wanted me to make,” Berrio said.

He earned just enough money to pay for his lunch, or the bus ride to school.

Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio carved this butterfly using balsa wood for the body and legs, and paper for the wings.

His pieces can take anywhere from a week to two months to complete. “This butterfly was the most time-consuming,” he said, pointing to a model with translucent veined wings.

Since moving to Durham in 2016, he has devoted less time to his hobby than he once did. “Last year I made a crab for a friend who studies crustaceans,” Berrio said. “She got married and that was my wedding gift.”

Still no apes, or finches, or prairie voles — all subjects of his current research. “But I’m planning to restart,” Berrio said. “Every time I go home to Colombia I bring back some wood, or my favorite glue, or one of my carving tools.”

Insect sculptures by Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio.

Insect sculptures by Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio.

Explore more of Berrio’s sculpture and photography at https://www.flickr.com/photos/alejoberrio/.

by Robin Smith

by Robin Smith

High as a Satellite — Integrating Satellite Data into Science

Professor Tracey Holloway researches air quality at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Professor Tracey Holloway researches air quality at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Satellite data are contributing more and more to understanding air quality trends, and professor Tracey Holloway wants the world to know.

As a professor of the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at University of Wisconsin-Madison and the current Team Lead of the NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (HAQAST), she not only helps with the science related to satellites, but also the communication of findings to larger audiences.

Historically, ground-based monitors have provided estimates on changes in concentrations of air pollutants, Holloway explained in her March 2, 2018 seminar, “Connecting Science with Stakeholders,” organized by Duke’s Earth and Ocean Sciences department.

Despite the valuable information ground-based monitors provide, however, factors like high costs limit their widespread use. For example, only about 400 ground-based monitors for nitrogen dioxide currently exist, with many states in the U.S. entirely lacking even a single one. Almost no information on nitrogen dioxide levels had therefore existed before satellites came into the picture.

To close the gap, HAQAST employed earth-observing and polar-orbiting satellites — with fruitful results. Not only have they provided enough data to make more comprehensive maps showing nitrogen dioxide distributions and concentrations, but they also have detected formaldehyde, one of the top causes of cancer, in our atmosphere for the first time.

Satellites have additional long-term benefits. They can help determine potential monitoring sites before actually having to invest large amounts of resources. In the case of formaldehyde, satellite-generated information located areas of higher concentrations — or formaldehyde “hotspots” —  in which HAQAST can now prioritize placing a ground-based monitor. Once established, the site can evaluate air dispersion models, provide air quality information to the public and add to scientific research.

A slide form Holloway’s presentation, in the LSRC A building on March 2, explaining the purposes of a monitoring site.

A slide from Holloway’s presentation, in the LSRC A building on March 2, explaining the purposes of a monitoring site.

Holloway underscored the importance of effectively communicating science. She explained that many policymakers don’t have the strong science backgrounds and therefore need quick and friendly explanations of research from scientists.

Perhaps more significant, though, is the fact that some people don’t even realize that information exists. Specifically, people don’t realize that more satellites are producing new information every day; Holloway has made it a personal goal to have more one-on-one conversations with stakeholders to increase transparency.

Breakthroughs in science aren’t made by individuals: science and change are collaborative. And for Holloway, stakeholders also include the general public. She founded the Earth Science Women’s Network, with one of her goals being to change the vision of what a “scientist” looks like. Through photo campaigns and other communication and engagement activities, she interacted with adults and children to make science more appealing. By making science more sexy, it would be easier to inspire new and continue old discussions, create a more diverse research environment, and make the field more open for all.

Professor Tracey Holloway, air quality researcher at University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented her research at Duke on March 2, 2018.

Professor Tracey Holloway, air quality researcher at University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented her research at Duke on March 2, 2018.

Post by Stella Wang, class of 2019

Post by Stella Wang, class of 2019

Researchers Get Superman’s X-ray Vision

X-ray vision just got cooler. A technique developed in recent years boosts researchers’ ability to see through the body and capture high-resolution images of animals inside and out.

This special type of 3-D scanning reveals not only bones, teeth and other hard tissues, but also muscles, blood vessels and other soft structures that are difficult to see using conventional X-ray techniques.

Researchers have been using the method, called diceCT, to visualize the internal anatomy of dozens of different species at Duke’s Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility (SMIF).

There, the specimens are stained with an iodine solution that helps soft tissues absorb X-rays, then placed in a micro-CT scanner, which takes thousands of X-ray images from different angles while the specimen spins around. A computer then stitches the scans into digital cross sections and stacks them, like slices of bread, to create a virtual 3-D model that can be rotated, dissected and measured as if by hand.

Here’s a look at some of the images they’ve taken:

See-through shrimp

If you get flushed after a workout, you’re not alone — the Caribbean anemone shrimp does too.

Recent Duke Ph.D. Laura Bagge was scuba diving off the coast of Belize when she noticed the transparent shrimp Ancylomenes pedersoni turn from clear to cloudy after rapidly flipping its tail.

To find out why exercise changes the shrimp’s complexion, Bagge and Duke professor Sönke Johnsen and colleagues compared their internal anatomy before and after physical exertion using diceCT.

In the shrimp cross sections in this video, blood vessels are colored blue-green, and muscle is orange-red. The researchers found that more blood flowed to the tail after exercise, presumably to deliver more oxygen-rich blood to working muscles. The increased blood flow between muscle fibers causes light to scatter or bounce in different directions, which is why the normally see-through shrimp lose their transparency.

Peer inside the leg of a mouse

Duke cardiologist Christopher Kontos, M.D., and MD/PhD student Hasan Abbas have been using the technique to visualize the inside of a mouse’s leg.

The researchers hope the images will shed light on changes in blood vessels in people, particularly those with peripheral artery disease, in which plaque buildup in the arteries reduces blood flow to the extremities such as the legs and feet.

The micro-CT scanner at Duke’s Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility made it possible for Abbas and Kontos to see structures as small as 13 microns, or a fraction of the width of a human hair, including muscle fibers and even small arteries and veins in 3-D.

Take a tour through a tree shrew

DiceCT imaging allows Heather Kristjanson at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to digitally dissect the chewing muscles of animals such as this tree shrew, a small mammal from Southeast Asia that looks like a cross between a mouse and a squirrel. By virtually zooming in and measuring muscle volume and the length of muscle fibers, she hopes to see how strong they were. Studying such clues in modern mammals helps Kristjanson and colleagues reconstruct similar features in the earliest primates that lived millions of years ago.

Try it for yourself

Students and instructors who are interested in trying the technique in their research are eligible to apply for vouchers to cover SMIF fees. People at Duke University and elsewhere are encouraged to apply. For more information visit https://smif.pratt.duke.edu/Funding_Opportunities, or contact Dr. Mark Walters, Director of SMIF, via email at mark.walters@duke.edu.

Located on Duke’s West Campus in the Fitzpatrick Building, the SMIF is a shared use facility available to Duke researchers and educators as well as external users from other universities, government laboratories or industry through a partnership called the Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network. For more info visit http://smif.pratt.duke.edu/.

Post by Robin Smith, News and Communications

Post by Robin Smith, News and Communications

Meet Africa’s Bird Master of Vocal Imitation

The red-capped robin-chat (Cossypha natalensis) can mimic the songs and calls of dozens of other bird species – even their duets, says Duke researcher Tom Struhsaker.

The red-capped robin-chat (Cossypha natalensis) can mimic the songs and calls of dozens of other bird species – even their duets, says Duke researcher Tom Struhsaker.

Singing a duet in a foreign language isn’t just for opera stars — red-capped robin-chats do it too. These orange-brown birds with grey wings can imitate the sounds of 40 other bird species, even other species’ high-speed duets.

The latter finding comes from Tom Struhsaker, adjunct professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke. Struhsaker didn’t set out to study robin-chats. His interest in their vocal abilities developed while studying monkeys in Kibale Forest in Uganda, where he lived for nearly two decades from 1970 to 1988.

Their typical song “sounds like a long, rambling human-like whistle,” Struhsaker said. But during the 18 years he spent studying and living in Kibale, Struhsaker also heard these birds impersonate the tambourine-like courtship call of the crested guineafowl, the crow of a rooster, and the “puweepuweepuwee” of a crowned eagle, among others.

“The robin-chat’s ability to imitate is so good that many a bird watcher has looked skyward vainly searching for a crowned eagle performing its aerial display, when in fact the source of the eagle’s undulating whistle was a robin-chat in the nearby understory,” Struhsaker said.

He also noticed that if he whistled, eavesdropping robin-chats would approach and call back, and if he tweaked the pitch and sequence of notes in his whistle, the birds sometimes changed their reply.

This suggests red-capped robin-chats may be lifelong learners, unlike many other bird species that only learn songs during critical time windows, Struhsaker said.

But the robin-chat doesn’t stop at mimicking others’ solo performances. Notably, Struhsaker also heard them imitate the duet of the black-faced rufous warbler.

Black-faced rufous warblers sing a rapid-fire “seee-oooo-ee” duet with their mates. The two birds take turns such that the male sings the “seee,” the female chimes in with the “oooo” and the male fires back with the final “ee,” with no pauses between the three notes. The partners sing back and forth so seamlessly that they are often mistaken for a single bird.

“In order to do this, birds have an incredibly rapid reaction time, much greater than that of humans,” Struhsaker said.

On two occasions he heard single robin-chats sing both the male and female parts of the warbler duet by themselves. On another occasion he heard two robin-chats make music together as the warblers do, with one singing the male warbler’s part and the other singing the female part.

“This suggests these birds have an unusually high level of auditory perception and reaction time and cognitive ability,” Struhsaker said.

CITATION:  “Two Red-Capped Robin-Chats Cossypha Natalensis Imitate Antiphonal Duet of Black-Faced Rufous Warblers Bathmocercus rufus,” Thomas Struhsaker. Journal of East African Natural History, Dec. 2017. https://doi.org/10.2982/028.106.0201.

 

Some Lemurs are Loners, Others Crave Connection

DURHAM, N.C. — If lemurs were on Facebook, Fern would have oodles of friends, liking and commenting on their posts. Captain Lee, on the other hand, would rarely send a friend request.

Best buddies Fern and Alena at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina. Photo by Ipek Kulahci.

Best buddies Fern and Alena at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina. Photo by Ipek Kulahci.

These are just two of the distinct personalities discovered in a recent study of group dynamics in ring-tailed lemurs, primate cousins that live in groups of up to two dozen on the island of Madagascar.

First author Ipek Kulahci spent several years studying ring-tailed lemurs housed at the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina and the St. Catherines Island Lemur Program in Georgia. Along the way, she noticed a lot of variation in social behavior from one lemur the next. She observed socialite Fern, loner Captain Lee, best buddies Limerick and Herodotus and other lemur characters.

Some individuals seemed more outgoing than others. To try to quantify that, she followed four groups of ring-tailed lemurs over two consecutive years and recorded their behavior a minimum of four times a week for at least two months.

A social network of lemurs. Each circle represents an individual lemur, and lemurs who respond to each other’s calls are connected by arrows. Thicker arrows indicate lemurs who respond more frequently and have a stronger social bond.

A social network of lemurs. Each circle represents an individual lemur, and lemurs who respond to each other’s calls are connected by arrows. Thicker arrows indicate lemurs who respond more frequently and have a stronger social bond.

Using a method called social network analysis, she was able to measure how many connections each lemur had, with whom, and how strong those connections were. She was also able to figure out which lemurs were most influential in each group — either because they connected others, or because they had well-connected friends.

Kulahci and colleagues found that lemurs behaved consistently no matter what their age, sex or social situation. Some lemurs like Fern tended to seek connection; reinforcing social bonds by frequently picking through their friends’ fur and responding to other lemurs’ calls and scent marks.

Their interactions weren’t always amicable — the more socially active lemurs were also more likely to chase others or pick fights with individuals with whom they weren’t on friendly terms. “But they have a drive to interact with others, rather than be a loner,” said Kulahci, now a postdoctoral researcher at University College Cork in Ireland.

The researchers also found that lemurs, like us, don’t bond with just anyone. Whether they were extroverted or shy, all lemurs had an inner circle of groupmates they tended to groom, call back, or otherwise keep in touch with more than others.

Ipek Kulahci, postdoctoral researcher at University College Cork in Ireland.

Ipek Kulahci, postdoctoral researcher at University College Cork in Ireland.

“They essentially have buddies,” Kulahci said.

“This is important because social connectedness influences health, immunity, survival,” Kulahci said. “This is true for animals as well as humans.”

The results appeared online Dec. 9, 2017, in the journal Animal Behaviour.

Other authors on this study include Asif Ghazanfar and Daniel Rubenstein of Princeton University. This study was funded by grants from the Animal Behavior Society, American Society of Mammalogists, American Society of Primatologists and Princeton University.

CITATION:  “Consistent Individual Variation Across Interaction Networks Indicates Social Personalities in Lemurs,” Ipek Kulahci, Asif Ghazanfar and Daniel Rubenstein. Animal Behaviour, Dec. 9, 2017.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2017.11.012

by Robin Smith

by Robin Smith

Captive Lemurs Get a Genetic Health Checkup

DURHAM, N.C. — Careful matchmaking can restore genetic diversity for endangered lemurs in captivity, researchers report.

Ring-tailed lemurs born at the Duke Lemur Center have seen a recent infusion of new genetic material at key genes involved in the immune response, finds a new study.

Thanks to a long-term collaborative breeding program that transfers animals between institutions to preserve genetic diversity, genetic variation at one region was restored to levels seen in the wild.

The findings, published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, are important for the ability of future generations to fight disease.

Baby lemur twins Nemesis and Narcissa were the product of a breeding program developed by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums to preserve the future genetic health of North America’s captive ring-tailed lemurs. Their mother Sophia was among 62 ring-tailed lemurs recommended for breeding across 20 institutions nationwide in 2016. Photo by David Haring, Duke Lemur Center.

Baby lemur twins Nemesis and Narcissa were the product of a breeding program developed by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums to preserve the future genetic health of North America’s captive ring-tailed lemurs. Their mother Sophia was among 62 ring-tailed lemurs recommended for breeding across 20 institutions nationwide in 2016. Photo by David Haring, Duke Lemur Center.

Distant primate cousins with long black-and-white striped tails, ring-tailed lemurs live on the African island of Madagascar and nowhere else except in zoos and other captive facilities.

Some studies suggest that as few as 2,500 ring-tailed lemurs live in the wild today. Habit loss, hunting and the illegal pet trade have reduced their numbers by at least 50 percent in recent decades.

An additional estimated 2,500 ring-tailed lemurs live in zoos around the world, where experts work to maintain their genetic health in captivity.

The researchers studied DNA sequence variation at a region of the major histocompatibility complex, or MHC, a part of the genome that helps the immune system identify disease-causing bacteria, viruses and parasites.

Because different MHC gene variants recognize different types of pathogens, greater MHC diversity means animals are able to fend off a wider array of invaders.

The researchers estimated the number of MHC variants in 121 captive individuals born at the Duke Lemur Center and the Indianapolis and Cincinnati Zoos between 1980 and 2010.

They also compared them with 180 wild individuals from southwestern Madadgascar at the Bezà Mahafaly Special Reserve, where the animals regularly interbreed with lemurs from nearby forests.

Not surprisingly, MHC diversity was lower in captivity than in the wild.

Today’s captive ringtails came from a small group of ancestors that carried only a small fraction of the total genetic variation found in the larger wild population. Since their establishment, gene flow between captive populations and wild lemurs has been restricted.

Overall, the researchers found 20 unique MHC variants in the captive population, fewer than half the number in their wild counterparts.

However, efforts to identify good genetic matches across dozens of institutions have helped to preserve and even improve upon the diversity that is left.

For infants born at the Duke Lemur Center, MHC gene diversity remained low but stable for three decades from 1980 to 2010, then increased significantly from 2010 to 2013, researchers found.

Genetic contributions from several transplants contributed to the comeback.

An arranged marriage between ring-tailed lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina produced healthy twins Griselda and Hedwig in 2016. The infants are among 40 to 60 ring-tailed lemur infants born in North American zoos and other facilities each year. Photo by David Haring, Duke Lemur Center.

An arranged marriage between ring-tailed lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina produced healthy twins Griselda and Hedwig in 2016. The infants are among 40 to 60 ring-tailed lemur infants born in North American zoos and other facilities each year. Photo by David Haring, Duke Lemur Center.

The American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) tries to maintain a genetically healthy population by moving animals between institutions as potential mates. A team of experts uses computer software to help pick the best pairs for breeding.

Between 1980 and 2013, more than 1,160 ring-tailed lemurs were transferred between 217 institutions in North America alone.

In 2009, a male named Randy was transferred from the Saint Louis Zoo to the Duke Lemur Center for pairing with Sprite, a resident female. Experts also brought a mother-daughter pair, Schroeder and Leisl from the Zoo at Chehaw in Georgia, as potential mates for a resident male named Aracus.

“They saw an immediate improvement in the diversity of the offspring that were born,” said lead author Kathleen Grogan, who conducted the study while working on a doctorate with co-author Christine Drea at Duke University.

Grogan and colleagues are now examining whether MHC gene diversity helps the animals live longer or produce more offspring, as has been shown for other species.

“Not only do these lemurs serve as an assurance against extinction of their Malagasy counterparts, but maintaining as many variations of genes is important for keeping the individual lemurs, as well as the population healthy for any future challenges it may face,” said AZA Species Survival Plan Coordinator Gina Ferrie, a population biologist at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Conserving genetic diversity in captive populations over multiple generations is challenging due to their small size and relative isolation, but careful breeding can stem the loss, said Grogan, now a postdoctoral fellow at Pennsylvania State University.

Other authors include Michelle Sauther of the University of Colorado-Boulder and Frank Cuozzo at LaJuma Research Centre in South Africa.

This research was supported by Duke University, the International Primatological Society, Primate Conservation Inc., the University of Colorado-Boulder, the University of North Dakota, the National Science Foundation (BCS 0922465, BCS-1232570, IOS-071900), the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation, the St. Louis Zoo and the American Society of Primatologists.

CITATION:  “Genetic Wealth, Population Health: Major Histocompatibility Complex Variation in Captive and Wild Ring-Tailed Lemurs (Lemur Catta),” Kathleen Grogan, Michelle Sauther, Frank Cuozzo and Christine Drea. Ecology and Evolution, Date. DOI: 10.1002/ece3.3317

Pinpointing Where Durham’s Nicotine Addicts Get Their Fix

DURHAM, N.C. — It’s been five years since Durham expanded its smoking ban beyond bars and restaurants to include public parks, bus stops, even sidewalks.

While smoking in the state overall may be down, 19 percent of North Carolinians still light up, particularly the poor and those without a high school or college diploma.

Among North Carolina teens, consumption of electronic cigarettes in particular more than doubled between 2013 and 2015.

Now, new maps created by students in the Data+ summer research program show where nicotine addicts can get their fix.

Studies suggest that tobacco retailers are disproportionately located in low-income neighborhoods.

Living in a neighborhood with easy access to stores that sell tobacco makes it easier to start young and harder to quit.

The end result is that smoking, secondhand smoke exposure, and smoking-related diseases such as lung cancer, are concentrated among the most socially disadvantaged communities.

If you’re poor and lack a high school or college diploma, you’re more likely to live near a store that sells tobacco.

If you’re poor and lack a high school or college diploma, you’re more likely to live near a store that sells tobacco. Photo from Pixabay.

Where stores that sell tobacco are located matters for health, but for many states such data are hard to come by, said Duke statistics major James Wang.

Tobacco products bring in more than a third of in-store sales revenue at U.S. convenience stores — more than food, beverages, candy, snacks or beer. Despite big profits, more than a dozen states don’t require businesses to get a special license or permit to sell tobacco. North Carolina is one of them.

For these states, there is no convenient spreadsheet from the local licensing agency identifying all the businesses that sell tobacco, said Duke undergraduate Nikhil Pulimood. Previous attempts to collect such data in Virginia involved searching for tobacco retail stores by car.

“They had people physically drive across every single road in the state to collect the data. It took three years,” said team member and Duke undergraduate Felicia Chen.

Led by UNC PhD student in epidemiology Mike Dolan Fliss, the Duke team tried to come up with an easier way.

Instead of collecting data on the ground, they wrote an automated web-crawler program to extract the data from the Yellow Pages websites, using a technique called Web scraping.

By telling the software the type of business and location, they were able to create a database that included the names, addresses, phone numbers and other information for 266 potential tobacco retailers in Durham County and more than 15,500 statewide, including chains such as Family Fare, Circle K and others.

Map showing the locations of tobacco retail stores in Durham County, North Carolina.

Map showing the locations of tobacco retail stores in Durham County, North Carolina.

When they compared their web-scraped data with a pre-existing dataset for Durham County, compiled by a nonprofit called Counter Tools, hundreds of previously hidden retailers emerged on the map.

To determine which stores actually sold tobacco, they fed a computer algorithm data from more than 19,000 businesses outside North Carolina so it could learn how to distinguish say, convenience stores from grocery stores. When the algorithm received store names from North Carolina, it predicted tobacco retailers correctly 85 percent of the time.

“For example we could predict that if a store has the word “7-Eleven” in it, it probably sells tobacco,” Chen said.

As a final step, they also crosschecked their results by paying people a small fee to search for the stores online to verify that they exist, and call them to ask if they actually sell tobacco, using a crowdsourcing service called Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Ultimately, the team hopes their methods will help map the more than 336,000 tobacco retailers nationwide.

“With a complete dataset for tobacco retailers around the nation, public health experts will be able to see where tobacco retailers are located relative to parks and schools, and how store density changes from one neighborhood to another,” Wang said.

The team presented their work at the Data+ Final Symposium on July 28 in Gross Hall.

Data+ is sponsored by Bass Connections, the Information Initiative at Duke, the Social Science Research Institute, the departments of mathematics and statistical science and MEDx. This project team was also supported by Counter Tools, a non-profit based in Carrboro, NC.

Writing by Robin Smith; video by Lauren Mueller and Summer Dunsmore

Sizing Up Hollywood's Gender Gap

DURHAM, N.C. — A mere seven-plus decades after she first appeared in comic books in the early 1940s, Wonder Woman finally has her own movie.

In the two months since it premiered, the film has brought in more than $785 million worldwide, making it the highest grossing movie of the summer.

But if Hollywood has seen a number of recent hits with strong female leads, from “Wonder Woman” and “Atomic Blonde” to “Hidden Figures,” it doesn’t signal a change in how women are depicted on screen — at least not yet.

Those are the conclusions of three students who spent ten weeks this summer compiling and analyzing data on women’s roles in American film, through the Data+ summer research program.

The team relied on a measure called the Bechdel test, first depicted by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985.

Bechdel test

The “Bechdel test” asks whether a movie features at least two women who talk to each other about anything besides a man. Surprisingly, a lot of films fail. Art by Srravya [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

To pass the Bechdel test, a movie must satisfy three basic requirements: it must have at least two named women in it, they must talk to each other, and their conversation must be about something other than a man.

It’s a low bar. The female characters don’t have to have power, or purpose, or buck gender stereotypes.

Even a movie in which two women only speak to each other briefly in one scene, about nail polish — as was the case with “American Hustle” —  gets a passing grade.

And yet more than 40 percent of all U.S. films fail.

The team used data from the bechdeltest.com website, a user-compiled database of over 7,000 movies where volunteers rate films based on the Bechdel criteria. The number of criteria a film passes adds up to its Bechdel score.

“Spider Man,” “The Jungle Book,” “Star Trek Beyond” and “The Hobbit” all fail by at least one of the criteria.

Films are more likely to pass today than they were in the 1970s, according to a 2014 study by FiveThirtyEight, the data journalism site created by Nate Silver.

The authors of that study analyzed 1,794 movies released between 1970 and 2013. They found that the number of passing films rose steadily from 1970 to 1995 but then began to stall.

In the past two decades, the proportion of passing films hasn’t budged.

Since the mid-1990s, the proportion of films that pass the Bechdel test has flatlined at about 50 percent.

Since the mid-1990s, the proportion of films that pass the Bechdel test has flatlined at about 50 percent.

The Duke team was also able to obtain data from a 2016 study of the gender breakdown of movie dialogue in roughly 2,000 screenplays.

Men played two out of three top speaking roles in more than 80 percent of films, according to that study.

Using data from the screenplay study, the students plotted the relationship between a movie’s Bechdel score and the number of words spoken by female characters. Perhaps not surprisingly, films with higher Bechdel scores were also more likely to achieve gender parity in terms of speaking roles.

“The Bechdel test doesn’t really tell you if a film is feminist,” but it’s a good indicator of how much women speak, said team member Sammy Garland, a Duke sophomore majoring in statistics and Chinese.

Previous studies suggest that men do twice as much talking in most films — a proportion that has remained largely unchanged since 1995. The reason, researchers say, is not because male characters are more talkative individually, but because there are simply more male roles.

“To close the gap of speaking time, we just need more female characters,” said team member Selen Berkman, a sophomore majoring in math and computer science.

Achieving that, they say, ultimately comes down to who writes the script and chooses the cast.

The team did a network analysis of patterns of collaboration among 10,000 directors, writers and producers. Two people are joined whenever they worked together on the same movie. The 13 most influential and well-connected people in the American film industry were all men, whose films had average Bechdel scores ranging from 1.5 to 2.6 — meaning no top producer is regularly making films that pass the Bechdel test.

“What this tells us is there is no one big influential producer who is moving the needle. We have no champion,” Garland said.

Men and women were equally represented in fewer than 10 percent of production crews.

But assembling a more gender-balanced production team in the early stages of a film can make a difference, research shows. Films with more women in top production roles have female characters who speak more too.

“To better represent women on screen you need more women behind the scenes,” Garland said.

Dollar for dollar, making an effort to close the Hollywood gender gap can mean better returns at the box office too. Films that pass the Bechdel test earn $2.68 for every dollar spent, compared with $2.45 for films that fail — a 23-cent better return on investment, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Other versions of the Bechdel test have been proposed to measure race and gender in film more broadly. The advantage of analyzing the Bechdel data is that thousands of films have already been scored, said English major and Data+ team member Aaron VanSteinberg.

“We tried to watch a movie a week, but we just didn’t have time to watch thousands of movies,” VanSteinberg said.

A new report on diversity in Hollywood from the University of Southern California suggests the same lack of progress is true for other groups as well. In nearly 900 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2016, disabled, Latino and LGBTQ characters were consistently underrepresented relative to their makeup in the U.S. population.

Berkman, Garland and VanSteinberg were among more than 70 students selected for the 2017 Data+ program, which included data-driven projects on photojournalism, art restoration, public policy and more.

They presented their work at the Data+ Final Symposium on July 28 in Gross Hall.

Data+ is sponsored by Bass Connections, the Information Initiative at Duke, the Social Science Research Institute, the departments of mathematics and statistical science and MEDx. 

Writing by Robin Smith; video by Lauren Mueller and Summer Dunsmore

Mapping Electricity Access for a Sixth of the World's People

DURHAM, N.C. — Most Americans can charge their cell phones, raid the fridge or boot up their laptops at any time without a second thought.

Not so for the 1.2 billion people — roughly 16 percent of the world’s population — with no access to electricity.

Despite improvements over the past two decades, an estimated 780 million people will still be without power by 2030, especially in rural parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

To get power to these people, first officials need to locate them. But for much of the developing world, reliable, up-to-date data on electricity access is hard to come by.

Researchers say remote sensing can help.

For ten weeks from May through July, a team of Duke students in the Data+ summer research program worked on developing ways to assess electricity access automatically, using satellite imagery.

“Ground surveys take a lot of time, money and manpower,” said Data+ team member Ben Brigman. “As it is now, the only way to figure out if a village has electricity is to send someone out there to check. You can’t call them up or put out an online poll, because they won’t be able to answer.”

India at night

Satellite image of India at night. Large parts of the Indian countryside still aren’t connected to the grid, but remote sensing, machine learning could help pinpoint people living without power. Credits: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Led by researchers in the Energy Data Analytics Lab and the Sustainable Energy Transitions Initiative, “the initial goal was to create a map of India, showing every village or town that does or does not have access to electricity,” said team member Trishul Nagenalli.

Electricity makes it possible to pump groundwater for crops, refrigerate food and medicines, and study or work after dark. But in parts of rural India, where Nagenalli’s parents grew up, many households use kerosene lamps to light homes at night, and wood or animal dung as cooking fuel.

Fires from overturned kerosene lamps are not uncommon, and indoor air pollution from cooking with solid fuels contributes to low birth weight, pneumonia and other health problems.

In 2005, the Indian government set out to provide electricity to all households within five years. Yet a quarter of India’s population still lives without power.

Ultimately, the goal is to create a machine learning algorithm — basically a set of instructions for a computer to follow — that can recognize power plants, irrigated fields and other indicators of electricity in satellite images, much like the algorithms that recognize your face on Facebook.

Rather than being programmed with specific instructions, machine learning algorithms “learn” from large amounts of data.

This summer the researchers focused on the unsung first step in the process: preparing the training data.

Phoenix power plant

Satellite image of a power plant in Phoenix, Arizona

Fellow Duke students Gouttham Chandrasekar, Shamikh Hossain and Boning Li were also part of the effort. First they compiled publicly available satellite images of U.S. power plants. Rather than painstakingly framing and labeling the plants in each photo themselves, they tapped the powers of the Internet to outsource the task and hired other people to annotate the images for them, using a crowdsourcing service called Amazon Mechanical Turk.

So far, they have collected more than 8,500 image annotations of different kinds of power plants, including oil, natural gas, hydroelectric and solar.

The team also compiled firsthand observations of the electrification rate for more than 36,000 villages in the Indian state of Bihar, which has one of the lowest electrification rates in the country. For each village, they also gathered satellite images showing light intensity at night, along with density of green land and other indicators of irrigated farms, as proxies for electricity consumption.

Using these data sets, the goal is to develop a computer algorithm which, through machine learning, teaches itself to detect similar features in unlabeled images, and distinguishes towns and villages that are connected to the grid from those that aren’t.

“We would like to develop our final algorithm to essentially go into a developing country and analyze whether or not a community there has access to electricity, and if so what kind,” Chandrasekar said.

Electrification map of Bihar, India

The proportion of households connected to the grid in more than 36,000 villages in Bihar, India

The project is far from finished. During the 2017-2018 school year, a Bass Connections team will continue to build on their work.

The summer team presented their research at the Data+ Final Symposium on July 28 in Gross Hall.

Data+ is sponsored by Bass Connections, the Information Initiative at Duke, the Social Science Research Institute, the departments of mathematics and statistical science and MEDx. This project team was also supported by the Duke University Energy Initiative.

Writing by Robin Smith; video by Lauren Mueller and Summer Dunsmore

Science on the Trail

Duke launches free two-week girls science camp in Pisgah National Forest.

Duke launches free two-week girls science camp in Pisgah National Forest.

DURHAM, N.C. — To listen to Destoni Carter from Raleigh’s Garner High School, you’d never know she had a phobia of snails. At least until her first backpacking trip, when a friend convinced her to let one glide over her outstretched palm.

Destoni Carter

Destoni Carter from Raleigh’s Garner High School was among eight high schoolers in a new two-week camp that combines science and backpacking.

Soon she started picking them up along the trail. She would collect a couple of snails, put them on a bed of rocks or soil or leaves, and watch to see whether they were speedier on one surface versus another, or at night versus the day.

The experiment was part of a not-so-typical science class.

From June 11-23, 2017, eight high school girls from across North Carolina and four Duke Ph.D. students left hot showers and clean sheets behind, strapped on their boots and packs, and ventured into Pisgah National Forest.

For the high schoolers, it was their first overnight hike. They experienced a lot of things you might expect on such a trip: Hefty packs. Sore muscles. Greasy hair. Crusty socks. But they also did research.

The girls, ages 15-17, were part of a new free summer science program, called Girls on outdoor Adventure for Leadership and Science, or GALS. Over the course of 13 days, they learned ecology, earth science and chemistry while backpacking with Duke scientists.

Duke ecology Ph.D. student Jacqueline Gerson came up with the idea for the program. “Backpacking is a great way to get people out of their comfort zones, and work on leadership development and teambuilding,” said Gerson, who also teamed up with co-instructors Emily Ury, Alice Carter and Emily Levy, all Ph.D. students in ecology or biology at Duke.

Marwa Hassan of Riverside High School in Durham studying stream ecology as part of a two-week summer science program in Pisgah National Forest. Photo by Savannah Midgette.

Marwa Hassan of Riverside High School in Durham studying stream ecology as part of a two-week summer science program in Pisgah National Forest. Photo by Savannah Midgette.

The students hauled 30- to 40-pound loads on their backs for up to five miles a day, through all types of weather. For the first week and a half they covered different themes each day: evolution, geology, soil formation, aquatic chemistry, contaminants. Then on the final leg they chose an independent project. Armed with hand lenses, water chemistry test strips, measuring tapes and other gear, each girl came up with a research question, and had two days to collect and analyze the data.

Briyete Garcia-Diaz of Kings Mountain High School surveyed rhododendrons and other trees at different distances from streambanks to see which species prefer wet soils.

Marwa Hassan of Riverside High School in Durham waded into creeks to net mayfly nymphs and caddisfly larvae to diagnose the health of the watershed.

Savannah Midgette of Manteo High School counted mosses and lichens on the sides of trees, but she also learned something about the secret of slug slime.

“If you lick a slug it makes your tongue go numb. It’s because of the protective coating they have,” Midgette said.

High schoolers head to the backcountry to learn the secret of slug slime and other discoveries of science and self in new girls camp

High schoolers head to the backcountry to learn the secret of slug slime and other discoveries of science and self in new girls camp

The hiking wasn’t always easy. On their second day they were still hours from camp when a thunderstorm rolled in. “We were still sore from the previous day. It started pouring. We were soaking wet and freezing. We did workouts to keep warm,” Midgette said.

At camp they took turns cooking. They stir fried chicken and vegetables and cooked pasta for dinner, and somebody even baked brownies for breakfast. Samantha Cardenas of Charlotte Country Day School discovered that meals that seem so-so at home taste heavenly in the backcountry.

“She would be like, ugh, chicken in a can? And then eat it and say: ‘That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever had,’” said co-instructor Emily Ury.

Savannah Midgette and Briyete Garcia-Diaz drawing interactions within terrestrial systems as part of a new free summer science program called Girls on outdoor Adventure for Leadership and Science, or GALS. Learn more at https://sites.duke.edu/gals/.

Savannah Midgette and Briyete Garcia-Diaz drawing interactions within terrestrial systems as part of a new free summer science program called Girls on outdoor Adventure for Leadership and Science, or GALS. Learn more at https://sites.duke.edu/gals/.

The students were chosen from a pool of over 90 applicants, said co-instructor Emily Levy. There was no fee to participate in the program. Thanks to donations from Duke Outdoor Adventures, Project WILD and others, the girls were able to borrow all the necessary camping gear, including raincoats, rain pants, backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads and stoves.

The students presented their projects on Friday, June 23 in Environment Hall on Duke’s West Campus. Standing in front of her poster in a crisp summer dress, Destoni Carter said going up and down steep hills was hard on her knees. But she’s proud to have made it to the summit of Shining Rock Mountain to see the stunning vistas from the white quartz outcrop near the top.

“I even have a little bit of calf muscle now,” Carter said.

Funding and support for GALS was provided by Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke ecologist Nicolette Cagle, the Duke Graduate School and private donors via GoFundMe.

2017 GALS participants (left to right): Emily Levy of Duke, Destoni Carter of Garner High School, Zyrehia Polk of East Mecklenburg High School, Rose DeConto of Durham School of the Arts, Briyete Garcia-Diaz of Kings Mountain High School, Marwa Hassan of Riverside High School, Jackie Gerson of Duke, Daiana Mendoza of Harnett Central High School, Savannah Midgette of Manteo High School, Samantha Cardenas of Charlotte Country Day School and Alice Carter of Duke.

2017 GALS participants (left to right): Emily Levy of Duke, Destoni Carter of Garner High School, Zyrehia Polk of East Mecklenburg High School, Rose DeConto of Durham School of the Arts, Briyete Garcia-Diaz of Kings Mountain High School, Marwa Hassan of Riverside High School, Jackie Gerson of Duke, Daiana Mendoza of Harnett Central High School, Savannah Midgette of Manteo High School, Samantha Cardenas of Charlotte Country Day School and Alice Carter of Duke.

 

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