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

Author: Skylar Hughes

Materials For a Changing World… What is That?

Everything in our world is made from materials, meaning life is enabled by material development and efficiency. In today’s society, from constant technological revolution to the global pandemic, life as we know it is always evolving. But as the world around us evolves, the materials around us also need to evolve to keep up with current demands. But how? As a part of Duke University’s annual Research Week on Feb. 3, researchers from a multitude of practices offered their wisdom and research.

Moderated by Dr. Catherine L. Brinson, Ph.D., the panel hosted three Duke Scholars and their research on ‘Materials for a Changing World’. “The development of new materials can really be key in solving some of the more critical challenges of our time,” Brinson maintained.

Dr. David Beratan explaining his research on bio-machines and their material efficiency.

The first scholar to present was R.J Reynolds distinguished professor of chemistry, Dr. David N Beratan, Ph.D. His research concerns the transition from soft, wet, and tiny research machines to more durable, long-term research machines in the science field. “The machines of biology tend to be stochastic and floppy rather than deterministic and hard,” Beratan began. “They’re messy and there are lots of moving parts. They’re intrinsically noisy and error-prone, etc…They’re very different from the kinds of things you see under the hood of your car, and we’d really like to understand how they work and what lessons we might derive from them for our world.” His complex research and research group have aided in bridging the gap in knowledge regarding the transition of biological functional machines to synthetic ones.

Dr.Rubinstein presenting his research on materials at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering in 2019.

The panel continued with Aleksandar S. Vesic Distinguished Professor in mechanical engineering, Dr. Michael Rubinstein, Ph.D. His research involves the development of self-healing materials across multiple spectrums. “What you want to think about is materials that can heal themselves,” he stated. “If there’s a crack or a failure in a material, we would like the material to heal itself without external perturbation involvement. So it could be done by the other diffusion of molecules across some physical approaches, or by a chemical approach where you have bonds that were broken to the form.” His research on this possibility has made strides in the scientific field, especially in a time of such ecological stress and demand for materials.

Dr. Segura talking with Dr. Brinson on her research involving self-healing materials.

The panel concluded with biomedical engineering professor Dr. Tatiana Segura, Ph.D. Segura talked about work they are doing at their lab regarding materials that can be used to heal the human body after damage or injury. She began by mentioning that “we are a materials lab and that’s what we’re interested in designing. So what are we inspired by? Well, we are really inspired by the ability of our body to heal.” At her lab, a primary motivation is healing disabilities after a stroke. “Sometimes you have something that you deal with for a long time no matter how your body healed. And that inspires us to consider how do we actually engage this process with materials to make it go better and actually make our body heal in a way that we can promote repair and regeneration.” Understanding this process is a complex one, she explained, but one that she believes is crucial in understanding the design of the material.

‘Materials for a Changing World’ was yet another extremely powerful speaker series offered this year during Duke Research Week. Our world is changing, and our materials need to keep up. With the help of these experts, material innovation has a bright future.

Written by Skylar Hughes
Class of 2025

The Climate Crisis is Imminent. These Experts Offer Solutions.

In April of 2019, the first government declared climate change to be a national emergency. Since then, over 1,900 local governments and more than 23 national governments have expressed the same sentiment.

A 2021 report released by the IPCC labeled climate change a ‘code red’ for humanity, and every day more than 2 million people search the term ‘climate crisis’ on Google. So it’s apparent, the climate crisis is imminent. What’s the solution? Experts at Duke’s annual Research Week posed their research-based solutions during a virtual panel hosted on February 1st. (View the Session)

The panel, mediated by Biology professor Mohamed Noor, began with a solution posed by professors Mark Borsuk and Jonathan Wiener. Known as solar radiation modification, SRM is “an attempt to moderate global warming by intentionally increasing the amount of incoming sunlight that is reflected by the atmosphere back to space,” according to Borsuk. Its primary technique is stratospheric aerosol injection. Wiener explained that their research is “trying to understand the risk… And we’re working to study these multiple impacts because all too often, as we’re all familiar with human decision making at the individual level or the governmental public policy level tends to focus on one thing at a time.” However, even with possible governance challenges at play, their research poses an extremely cheap yet effective solution for avoiding some of the worst impacts of climate change.

Dalia Patino Echeverri’s presentation on GRACE, an energy solution.

Next up on the panel was Dalia Patino Echeverri, an associate professor at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. She began by ruminating on the challenges faced in Texas after the snowstorm last year, and how climate change intensified those challenges. Her research focuses on how to address the electricity issues that climate change is producing in our nation, through a system called ‘GRACE’. ‘GRACE’ is a power grid that is risk-aware for clean, smart energy usage.

“It considers the forecast of electricity, the amount of load on the forecast of electricity generation from wind and sun of resources, and looks at the availability of conventional resources to schedule this commercial resources.” said Echeverri. Its operating system is extremely intelligent minimizing expected value and total cost of energy during times of climate crisis.

Brian Silliman’s presentation on Duke Restore.

Finally, a solution was presented from Brian Silliman, the Rachel Carson Distinguished Professor for marine biology. He introduced a more grassroots approach to climate restoration, called Duke Restore.

“A lot of our research and those of others have shown that the presence of restored marine environments greatly protects human societies on the coastline from increasing threat storm surge, and flooding generated in large part by climate change impacts, etc.” Silliman began.

Duke Restore aims to go out into ecosystems and restore the shorelines that have been lost, indirectly aiding in climate crisis alleviation. Silliman is currently collaborating with governments and other conservation organizations to help change the way they plan to restore these ecosystems from the bottom up. ““We’re doing this here in North Carolina with the US Marine Corps, changing the planting designs to switch the restoration trajectory from failure to success.”

Kay Jowers explaining her ideas for a more equitable approach to policy solutions.

Kay Jowers, a Senior Policy Associate at the Duke Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, closed out the panel event with some final thoughts.

“My charge is to give you some food for thought about creating a more supportive environment for environmental and climate justice at Duke,” she began. She explained the need for action as compared to documentation and explained that equitable approaches are needed to avoid a climate disaster.

“In the world of Environmental Justice Studies, the communities, and the scholars have been calling for less problematization and documenting of problems, and more orientation towards solutions.” Her sentiments resonated deeply with the theme of the panel, as solution-based research is of paramount importance in the 21st century.

The Duke Research Week panel on climate change solutions posed tangible explications for the ever imminent climate crisis happening around the world. Though climate change is apparent now more than ever, researchers like these hold the solutions for the future.

Post by Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

Introducing Muser – A Better Way to Find Student Research

An effortlessly simple research platform where Duke students and Duke research projects can connect? Yes, please!

If you are anything like me, Duke University’s incredible research opportunities were extremely enticing when considering this school. One of the top 10 research institutions in the United States, Duke University’s research community spends over 1 billion dollars annually to fund its projects, which includes notable research facilities like the Duke Center for Human Genetics, the Duke Cancer Institute, the Duke Center for AIDS Research, and the Duke Human Vaccine Institute.

However, the amount of opportunity in this area can be overwhelming to approach, and as a student you often have no clue where to start.

Summer undergraduate research in cancer biology at the Duke University School of Medicine.

That’s where Muser comes in.

Duke introduces: Muser.com

Muser is a website created by Sheila Patek, a Duke biology professor who used grant money from the National Science Foundation to create a more equitable and straightforward way to connect undergraduates with professors with research opportunities. The resource allows researchers to post ongoing research positions with a direct application through the website.

Muser can sort research projects by compensation, hours, year, and project category, simplifying Duke’s incredibly complex research community by a lot.

“Muser posts research projects in 4 rounds throughout the year, a Fall round (August), a late Fall round for Spring projects (October/November), a Spring round for Summer projects (February/March), and a Spring round for Fall projects (March/April),” according to its website. Muser makes it easy to accommodate research positions into the part of your semester that works with your busy schedule.

I connected with some Duke students who have found success with the growing research platform, and though their interests were diverse, the success was all-encompassing.

“My experience with my Muser Project for the summer of 2021 was great overall,” said Elaijah Lapay, class of 2025. “It was essentially a history research assistantship helping a professor in the history department conduct research on elderly and eldercare in North Carolina. I was able to go to the NC State archives as well as archives across eastern North Carolina to really dive into the question of treatment of the elderly during the 20th century.”

Lapay’s research is so fruitful that the professor, James Chappel, the Gilhuly Family Associate Professor of History, is continuing to pursue this project for the rest of the school year. “I truly felt one-of-a-kind… I definitely feel like I’ve learned a lot and it’s sparked a passion in me for geriatrics and eldercare.”

A look inside Dr. Laurie Sanders’s lab here at Duke University.

“I got the chance to work in the Sanders lab under principal investigator Dr. Laurie Sanders and post-doctorate Dr.Claudia Gonzalez-Hunt!” said Shreya Goel, class of 2025. This lab was the first to link a genetic mutation to mitochondrial DNA damage which was ultimately discovered to be a marker for sporadic Parkinson’s disease.

“I get to work with human cells to induce and track mitochondrial and nuclear DNA mutations to determine their effect on the progression of the cell cycle,” Goel said. Her research position is making a difference and it allows her to gain tangible experience in a field she is passionate about.

The success stories are copious, and the opportunity that this platform has brought to prodigious students like these is without question.

At a billion-dollar research school, understanding where to begin can be intimidating. Muser alleviates these worries by connecting researchers and students through an accessible platform.

Have more questions? Visit Muser’s FAQ page to get more information and get into contact with one of Muser’s staff.

Post by Skylar Hughes
Class of 2025

What does the World Need from Future Policy Leaders?

The Sanford School of Public Policy’s David Rubenstein endowed lecture on Oct. 15 was like a conversation between two old friends.

In fact it was. Former World Bank president Jim Yong Kim and Duke alumnus and donor David Rubenstein got together on stage in celebration of the school’s 50th anniversary to catch up, and the audience was able to listen in. (Watch full video here)

Rubenstein had been a long-time mentor to Kim, offering him advice and aid along his journey.

The conversation began with Kim opening up about his childhood in Korea and the U.S.

“My dad was born in North Korea, and after he escaped he never saw his parents again.” His mom, also a refugee, was born in South Korea.

When Kim was just five years old, his parents made the decision to move from South Korea to the U.S. in hopes of a better future for him. He studied at the University of Iowa for a year before transferring to Brown University. After graduating from Brown and getting an MD from Harvard, Kim and a friend, Duke alumnus Paul Farmer MD, came up with the idea to start a nonprofit.

“I remember my close friend Paul said to me, ‘Now that we’ve had the opportunity to be involved in ridiculously elaborate educations, what’s our responsibility to the poor?’ and that’s how Partners in Health was created.”

The nonprofit aimed to grant accessible healthcare in Haiti, and then eventually to other countries around the world. After his time with Partners in Health, Kim became the President of Dartmouth University, and then became President of the World Bank.

“I had a coach in high school who told me, ‘You have to know when to leave.’ I’ve had many careers in my lifetime, and I’m grateful for that.”

Kim Yong Jim (pictured on the left) in conversation with David Rubenstein (pictured on the right).

Kim also talked about his views on the pandemic from a policy standpoint, questioning, “Why are we taking such a passive view on how to tackle this pandemic?” He explained how the U.S. was completely unprepared as a nation to tackle an epidemic like this, as only 2.5% of health spending had been allocated towards public health.

Rubenstein continued the conversation, asking Kim what his advice for future world policy leaders is. “You’ve made a fantastic choice coming to Duke, but try to come out with a skill. You have to learn new things,” he said.

He explained how Duke was the perfect environment to foster education and skill simultaneously, and how this kind of opportunity enhances your ability to give back to the world. “My medical degree from Harvard helped me with Partners in Health and gave me a skill I could fall back on and learn from.”

Kim argued that versatility is a good thing, not a bad thing, and that future policy leaders need to hone in on this strength to make the most out of their career.

Kim pictured with President Obama during his time as President of the World Bank.

Excitingly enough, I had the rare opportunity to ask these brilliant men a question towards the end of the lecture: “How do you release any self-doubt you have when going after such a big goal, like starting your own non-profit?” Kim responded by saying that “regardless of how my goal turned out, I knew I had to try.”

The message of this lecture was clear. Schools like Duke hold the world’s future leaders, and at a time like this, it is crucial that we as students develop ourselves in a well-rounded way.

Post by Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

The Black Wealth Gap in Modern Day America

“White Americans have been provided with up escalators they can ride to reach their goals without hurdles. Meanwhile, Black Americans have been forced onto down escalators which they must run-up to reach their destination.”

The Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University recently released a striking report on Black wealth in America, entitled “Still Running Up the Down Escalator: How Narratives Shape our Understanding of Racial Wealth Inequality,” This 36-page report, written by Natasha Hicks, Fenaba Addo, Anne Prince, and William Darity examines the stark inequalities in the economic situation of Black Americans.

The cover page of the 36-page, in-depth report, published earlier this fall.

“Despite a decade of philanthropic investment and renewed attention from progressive elected officials, policymakers, and advocates, we have yet to make discernible progress in ensuring Black families have the power and freedom wealth bestows,” the report says (page 1).

“The typical Black household’s wealth (in 2019) was $24,100; for White households, it was $188,200. This translates into the typical Black household holding about 12 cents for every dollar of wealth held by the typical White family– a disparity that has remained largely unchanged since 1989 (Kent and Ricketts, 2020).” ( page 6)

Black families are disproportionately shut out of access to opportunities that would improve generational wealth, such as home loans, business loans/ownership, and financial assets. Because of the long history of these inequalities, Black wealth in America has improved little in the last 10 years.

The report continues by analyzing how Covid-19, the worst Pandemic in US History, has widened the wealth gap in America.

“Racial wealth inequality remains a persistent defining American issue, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate toll on the physical and financial health of Black people,” the report says. “The COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding economic crisis have only exacerbated what was already a collective failing by policymakers and elected officials, who continue to invest in solutions focused on individual behavior instead of systems change.”

Covid-19 placed over 114 million people into unemployment over the course of the pandemic, with an overrepresentation of Black Americans in these figures. The figures below were published in the report to highlight the number of liquid assets and wealth available to white families versus black families in 2019, just one year before the pandemic.

This figure taken from the report shows the median liquid assets by race and income. ( figure 1, page 8)
This figure taken from the report shows the median wealth accumulated by race and wealth quintiles. (figure 2, page 8)

As illustrated by these figures, the average White family in America maintains a leg up financially through both income and assets, which is why when the pandemic hit, black Americans were the ones disproportionately affected. Without access to high wealth modules or liquid assets to lean on, the economic wealth gap in America grew bigger.

The next part of the report talked about how false narratives in America regarding economic inequality is leading to unsuccessful aims of correction. In America, it’s a common theme to assume the problems faced by Black Americans are a cultural or personal issue, instead of a systemic one.

“Harmful narratives that characterize Black Americans as unintelligent, lazy, and criminal reinforce the notion that racial wealth disparities between Black and White households arise from differences in culture, values, skills, and behavior.” (page 10) Themes of anti-Blackness and personal responsibility, or a bootstrap mentality, were key systemic factors noted in the report. These factors impacted almost every aspect of Black America, including education, homeownership, entrepreneurship, family structure, and income and employment.

The report concludes by bringing up tangible solutions for these structural problems.

“The past year of crises is exposing the fact that we created systems, rules, and policies that actively and intentionally harm Black people. In order to truly address racial wealth inequality and the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, policymakers and funders must move away from solutions focused on behavioral changes and individual choices. Rather, they must take bold actions (backed by large scale financial investments) to shift dominant narratives and reimagine economic structures that support, uplift and protect Black people.” (page 23)

The authors make four broad proposals: shift harmful narratives, eliminate the racial wealth gap, dismantle extractive policies, and design programs to seed intergenerational wealth.

Economic disparities in America are a systemic issue, not a cultural or personal one. This report examines the interplay between this issue and the current pandemic, maintaining that the only way to create tangible change is through systemic solutions.

“America offers a false promise of equal opportunity and individual agency. For Black Americans, making all the right choices does not equal all the right outcomes. Just as wealth-building for White people in America was by design and government action, we need intentional and structural wealth-building strategies for Black Americans with investments compared to those given to White Americans. This requires a paradigm shift to truly tackle racial wealth inequality.” (page 36)

Written by Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

A Look Inside the Most Dynamic Criminal Trial of 2021

“You were told, for example, that Mr. Floyd died because his heart was too big. You heard that testimony… the truth of the matter is – that the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small.”

– Jerry Blackwell

George Floyd holding his now 7-year-old daughter, Gianna Floyd.

May 25, 2020 was a day that shook the United States to its core. George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black father was murdered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by white police officer Derek Chauvin. Police brutality is nothing new to America, but the barbarity of this incident sparked international outrage, leading to the reignition of the Black Lives Matter movement, worldwide protests, and national polarization.

On Sept. 20 at Duke Law, political science professor Kerry L. Haynie and law professors Timothy Lovelace and Trina Jones had the opportunity to converse in a virtual panel discussion with Jerry Blackwell, the lead prosecutor for the George Floyd trial.

“The unique thing about this case was that George Floyd died in all of our living rooms,” Blackwell began. “The people wearing the badge who are supposed to protect the people almost made me feel like an object that could be brutalized.”

Blackwell, a North Carolina native, said he sympathized with George Floyd, not in the direct sense of being brutalized, but from other dehumanizing injustices by police, such as being pulled over without reason, being racially profiled, and being questioned without a warrant.

Lead Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell during the Derek Chauvin trial.

Blackwell’s involvement with the case launched with a call from Attorney General Keith Ellison, the first Black attorney general in the state of Minnesota. “Happenstance” was how Blackwell described his acquisition of the case. He explained that his law firm, Blackwell Burke, practiced trial law and that this was a criminal case, causing potential issues in participation. Regardless, he wanted to help in any way that he could, especially since the incident happened in Minneapolis, where he lives.

Blackwell thought he would be “helping with costumes and hemming the curtains,” helping other criminal lawyers get ready for the trial, maintaining a more behind-the-scenes position. He joined on a pro bono basis, meaning he did not get paid, but after a few weeks, he ended up becoming the Lead Prosecutor for the case.

During his work, Blackwell said he encountered a plethora of obstacles, one of which was the issue of American History. Since the onset of the civil rights movement, attempting to commit a white police officer for the brutalization of an African American is a rare and arduous thing. “So many citizens don’t want to believe that police officers would ever do that,” thinking instead that there had to be some confusion going on, that if given more time, there would have been a different reaction. The assumption that cases like these represent a situational issue and not a personal one is one of the factors responsible for the current lack of accountability in the justice system.

There was also the concern of drugs being in Floyd’s system at the time of the murder.

“Some jurors might hear ‘drug equals thug’ and a thug isn’t a thing a juror would rule in favor of against a white police officer.” Blackwell said. It was important to him that his team prove without a doubt that drugs were not his cause of death, so they could turn their attention to incriminating Derek Chauvin. Blackwell was also questioned by his team on whether he held enough objectivity to handle this case since he had lived similar experiences as a black man.

During the three-week trial, Blackwell remained hopeful about the outcome of the case, even though it was extremely difficult at times.

Officer Derek Chauvin moments before the final verdict was given.

He opened up about having white counterparts who expressed, “How hard can it be, with video proof?” and explained that when it comes to the issue of social justice, just because everyone has seen it doesn’t mean the verdict will be any different.

“Every African American was on the edge of their seats, and I was too,” he said. After deliberating for around 10 hours over a two-day period, the jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder and he was later sentenced to 22.5 years in prison.

Justice was served, right?

According to Blackwell, it wasn’t. “Don’t call it justice, because if it were, George Floyd would still be alive.”

Post by Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

New Blogger Skylar Hughes: ‘Up for the Challenge’

When I was a young girl, My mother once explained to me the importance of a first impression. “You can only make it once, after all,” she’d say. Here I am writing this introduction for you guys, and her words echo in my mind, so I’ll give it my best shot.

Senior pictures, time flies!

Hi, my name is Skylar Hughes, and I’m a part of the class of 2025. Atlanta, Georgia, is where I call home, and from my slang to my walk, it’s quite obvious where I grew up. I’m the person who will talk to everyone and is not at all afraid to speak her mind. A random fun fact about me is that I was actually on the Ellen Show in January!! (kind of cool, right?) It still feels unreal that I am here, and you will most likely see me wandering around lost one day like the freshman I am. My major is undecided, but currently I am between Marine Science and Public Policy. (confused isn’t even the word. )

I’m still in shock from this… https://youtu.be/OivXTYYiUj4

Marine science was my first love, the major that I’ve had a crush on since middle school, and invested countless hours researching online and through documentaries. I even went to a Duke TIP marine science program in the Gulf of Mexico my sophomore year of high school and loved every second of it. I’ve watched every episode of Deep Blue on National Geographic and probably know more than a person should about coral reefs. But public policy? That was like my celebrity crush, the major I eyed from a distance and really admired, but never had the privilege to closely interact with. I remember watching figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Stacey Abrams dominate the field with their intelligence, being the change they wanted to see in their communities, and I was hooked. As a teenager, I often found myself frustrated with government decisions and realized that public policy gave me the chance to make genuine change. I was sold.

My High School Graduation!

So now here I am at Duke, which maintains an outstanding program for marine science AND public policy, and I am like a kid in a candy store. Along with hoping to figure my major out this year, I’m also planning on being involved with the Black Student Alliance here at Duke, as well as joining Duke’s Climate Change Coalition, and volunteering at the Geer Street Learning Garden.

For me, research blogs are a brilliant way to reach the masses with reliable information, research, and content that can be trusted, which is profoundly important to me. Education is the only process by which growth is made. Without education, we’re, in essence, doomed for retrogression. Education arms people with a weapon that cannot be stolen, one that can not only rid them of their current circumstances but be a guiding light towards their desired ones.

Education refines new ideas, which are the only reasons man is not still living in caves and figuring out fire. The education of one can be utilized to educate another, creating a snowball effect of intellect that cannot be restrained. An educated population leads to educated decisions in society, which leads to educated leaders in office, leading to more authentic community at Duke, in Durham, and beyond.

Sunset view from one of my favorite spots in Atlanta: Stone Mountain!

I take great pleasure in writing, and it was one of the few activities in school that I viewed as a stress reliever instead of a stressor. In a society as dynamic and saturated as the one we’re submerged in, research blogs are essential. Durham represents such a culturally rich and diverse community with so many stories to tell and issues to be brought to light. There are people from all ranges of socioeconomic status, gender, race, and religion, with narratives that are worth their weight in gold. I can only imagine the growth as an intellectual and the valuable experience gained with this position, and I am up for the challenge.

Post by Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

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