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

Author: Sophie Cox

Vernal, Ephemeral, Spring Beauty by Any Other Name

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Nicki Cagle, Ph.D., with perfoliate bellwort, an ephemeral forest plant also known as wild oats (Uvularia perfoliata).

“Ephemeral” is one of my favorite words. It conjures up images of vernal pools and fireflies and flowers in spring. It comes from ephēmeros, a Greek word meaning “lasting a day.” English initially used it in a scientific sense, to refer to fevers and then in reference to short-lived organisms like flowers or insects. Today “ephemeral” is most often used to describe anything fleeting or short-lived.

The term “spring ephemeral,” for instance, refers to flowers that are visible for only a short time each spring before they disappear.

Nicki Cagle, Ph.D, a senior lecturer in the Nicholas School of the Environment, led a spring ephemeral workshop in the Korstian Division of Duke Forest on a Friday afternoon in late March. The workshop was hosted by DSER, the Duke student chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration. We focused on identifying herbaceous plant species and families, particularly spring ephemerals.

“Spring ephemerals are perennials that emerge early in the spring and then grow, reproduce, and disappear from the surface of the forest floor in just a few short weeks,” Cagle explains. We also found several species that aren’t technically ephemerals but still bloom in early spring — before the tree canopy emerges and plunges the floor into shade.

Oxalis violacea, a species of wood sorrel.

The first plant Cagle points out is Oxalis violacea, a type of wood sorrel. “This particular species will have purple flowers,” she says. The genus name, Oxalis, refers to the plant’s oxalic acid content. “You can nibble on it,” but “you don’t want to nibble on it too much.” Oxalic acid, which is also found in common foods like spinach, gives the leaves a pleasant, lemony taste, but it can cause problems if eaten in excess.

Common bluet (Houstonia caerulea).

When we come across a patch of lovely, pale violet flowers with yellow centers, Cagle challenges the workshop participants to determine which family it belongs to. She offers two options: Rubiaceae, a large family that often has either opposite or whorled leaves and four to five petals and which includes familiar plants like coffee, or Violaceae, a very small plant family whose members “tend to have everything in fives” (like petals, stamens, and sepals) and often have basal leaves. Answer: Rubiaceae. This particular species is Houstonia caerulea, the common bluet. Its yellow centers help distinguish it from related species like the summer bluet, tiny bluet, and purple bluet. If anything, Cagle says, the plant’s presence is “an indicator of disturbance,” but it’s still good to have around.

Here’s the little brown jug (Hexastylis arifolia).

Next we come across two species in the Hexastylis genus. They are sometimes called wild ginger, but the name is misleading. Hexastylis species are not related to the ginger you buy in the store, which is in a completely different family. Hexastylis is, however, in the same family as the Asarum genus, which Cagle thinks of as “proper” wild ginger. Asarum and Hexastylis have traditionally been used as food and medicine, but they also contain toxins. According to Cagle, they belong to “one of the few plant families that have fossilized remains in the United States,” even dating back to the late Cretaceous Period.

The two species we see are Hexastylis arifolia, the little brown jug, and Hexastylis minor which looks similar but “tends to have a much more rounded form.” Like many spring ephemerals, Hexastylis is often dispersed by ants. The seeds have elaiosomes, fatty deposits that ants find attractive.

“We have a lot of different violets of varying origins” in this area. According to Cagle, this one is likely to be a common blue violet, Viola sororia.

There’s a patch of violets near the Hexastylis plants. “We have a lot of different violets… of varying origins” around here, Cagle says. Many of the native species have both a purple form and a variety that’s white with purple striping. Other species in the violet family come in different colors altogether, and Cagle says many of those are of European origin.

The Johnny-jump-up pansy, for instance, can have “funkier colors,” like yellow or pinkish purple and is native to Europe and Asia. Violets can be hard to identify. Some species are distinguished mainly by characteristics like the lobes (projections in leaves with gaps between them) or the hairiness of the leaves. The bird’s foot violet and wood violet, for example, “tend to have really deep lobes.”

Cagle says the violet we’re looking at is likely the common blue violet, characterized by smooth leaves and petals, purple or purple-and-white flowers, and rounded or slightly arrow-shaped leaves.

The Cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor) reproduces later in the year. The purple on the bottom of the leaves, and sometimes on the top as well (see right), helps protect the plant from sunlight and herbivores.

The orchid family, Orchidaceae, is one of the largest families of flowering plants in the world. Many of its members are tropical, including the Vanilla genus, but “we do have a number of native orchids” here as well, including yellow and pink lady’s slipper orchids, putty-root, and the cranefly orchid.

The cranefly orchid, Tipularia discolor, isn’t yet in bloom, but we come across the leaves several times on our walk. According to Cagle, Tipularia discolor “isn’t actually a spring ephemeral” because it reproduces later in the year. However, “it’s ephemeral in its own way,” the leaves disappear by the time it flowers. Cagle says the plant’s scientific name can remind you what to look for: “‘Tip-’ because you’re going to tip this leaf over” to look at the underside and “discolor” because the leaves are a striking purple underneath. Some of the ones we see are purple on top as well. Cagle explains that the purple coloration serves as sunscreen and protection from critters that eat plants.

The plant gets its common name (and its scientific genus name, interestingly) from its delicate flowers, which are supposed to resemble craneflies. When the plant blooms, “the flowers are so delicate and so subtle that most of the time you miss them.” Pollinators like Noctuid moths, on the other hand, find the flowers easily and often. Cranefly orchids even have “specialized seed structures” that “get fused onto insects [such as the moths]… and carried off.”

Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides or Anemonella thalictroides).
Cagle with giant chickweed (Stellaria pubera).

The rue anemone, unlike the cranefly orchid, is a true spring ephemeral. It belongs to a more “primitive” family and has lots of petals in a spiral arrangement. The species is also known as windflower “because they flutter and dance as the breeze comes through.” Cagle mentions that the plant is “usually pollinated by flies and little bees” and serves as an important food source for insects in early spring. But “how do these even exist” in a forest with so many plant-eating deer? Many spring ephemerals, Cagle explains, have “some really potent toxins” that protect them from large herbivores.

We stop briefly to examine perfoliate bellwort, also known as wild oats (Uvularia perfoliata), and giant (or star) chickweed. Chickweed is in the pink family, named not for the color but because “the petals… [look] as if they’re cut by ‘pinking shears,’” which have saw-toothed blades that leave notches in fabric.

Trout lily (Erythronium umbilicatum). According to Cagle, “No spring ephemeral walk is actually complete without finding some trout lilies.”

Near the end of our walk, we find several trout lilies. That’s fortunate. “No spring ephemeral walk is actually complete without finding some trout lilies,” Cagle says.

Unsurprisingly, trout lilies belong to the lily family. “Their flower structure,” Cagle says, “is very symmetrical” with three petals and three sepals. In trout lilies, the sepals resemble petals, too. This particular species is Erythronium umbilicatum. The species name, umbilicatum, refers to its “really long peduncle,” or flower stalk, which “allows the seed to actually touch the ground.” The seed is dimpled, Cagle says, “like a little belly button.” The name “trout lily,” meanwhile, refers to the mottled pattern on the leaves.

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), “a quintessential spring ephemeral.”

At the base of a tree near a small river, Cagle points out a flower called spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), “a quintessential spring ephemeral.” Some flowers, like the common bluet we saw earlier, thrive in disturbed areas, but plants like the spring beauty need rich, undisturbed habitat. That makes them good indicator species, species that can help scientists gauge environmental conditions and habitat quality. When a natural area is being restored, for example, scientists can measure restoration progress by comparing the “restoration site” to an undisturbed “reference site.”

According to Cagle, the spring beauty is pollinated by “bee flies… flies that kind of look like bees.” After pollination, the flowers turn pink. Cagle says this is common among ephemerals. One theory is that the color change signifies which flowers have already been pollinated, but others think it’s just a result of senescence, or aging.

Spring beauties are also “photonastic,” meaning they open and close in response to changing light conditions. “There is some evidence that the Iroquois would eat this plant in order to prevent conception,” Cagle says, but today the plant—like many spring ephemerals—is under protection in some areas. Human activities, sadly, have contributed to the decline of too many spring ephemerals.

Alum root (Heuchera americana) near the end of the walk. According to Cagle, its roots can be used “to form mordant for dyes.” Members of the Saxifrage family, which includes alum root, often have five petals, five sepals, and five stamens.

Not all of the plants we saw are spring ephemerals. Some, although they bloom in early spring, “wouldn’t technically be considered ephemeral because their leaves stick around even if their blooms don’t last long.” True ephemerals, on the other hand, “are plants that just seem to disappear off the face of the planet (or the forest floor) after a few weeks,” Cagle says. Only three of the species we found during the workshop are true ephemerals: the windflower, trout lily, and spring beauty. However, these aren’t the only spring ephemerals found in the area. Cagle’s personal favorite is bloodroot, with its “bright white petals” and pollen “that looks like it’s glowing.”

Next time you’re in the woods, keep your eyes out for ephemerals and other early spring flowers, but look quickly. They won’t be here for long.

By Sophie Cox

Post and Photos by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

“Brains are Weird… and the World is Difficult”

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Institute for Consumer Money Management, and Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight.

Intending to do the right thing doesn’t always lead to actually doing it, a tendency formally known as the “intention-behavior gap.” We can intend to go to bed early and still go to bed late. We can want to exercise and still choose not to. We can recognize the importance of saving extra money and still choose to spend it instead. So why is it so hard to change our behavior? Because, says Jonathan Corbin, Ph.D., “brains are weird” and “the world is difficult.”

Corbin is a senior behavioral researcher at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University. The Center for Advanced Hindsight recently partnered with NOVA Labs, Thought Cafè, and the Institute for Consumer Money Management to create the NOVA Financial Lab, a group of financial literacy games targeted at adolescents and emerging adults. In each game, players practice managing money while taking care of a pet. You may never have to sneak a cat into a concert or prepare a retirement plan for a dog in real life, but you will need to understand concepts like budgeting, interest, and debt. “What we hope people start to do,” Corbin says, “is really think about, ‘What decisions should I make now to make better decisions later?’”

Essentially, “Money spent now is money that can’t be spent later.” As intuitive as that might seem, “The way we think about money is relative, and it’s not linear.” When you’re already spending thousands of dollars on a car, for instance, an extra five hundred dollars for a feature you may or may not need “feels like a very small amount of money,” but in a different situation, its value can seem higher. How many times, Corbin points out, could you go out to eat with five hundred dollars?

The three games combine financial literacy with behavioral science to explore why people make the decisions they do and how they can start to make better ones.
Source: https://advanced-hindsight.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/CAH-NOVA.pdf

There are three games: Shopportunity Cost, Budget Busters, and Exponential Potential. (“One of the people from PBS helped us come up with these cute names,” Corbin says.) They each involve different skills, but they all focus on “financial literacy from a behavioral science perspective.” Players have to contend with both external obstacles and common behavioral biases to make financial decisions for a pet. “I always choose the dog,” Corbin adds, “but I understand other people might choose the cat.” (I chose the cat.)

The first game, Shopportunity Cost, focuses on short-term financial planning. It involves dressing a pet up like a person in order to sneak them into a concert for the night. “You have to make decisions that optimize the pet’s happiness while also being able to make it to the concert and back home,” but you have a limited amount of money to spend. If you spend too much money too soon, you’ll run out, but if you’re too frugal, your pet won’t enjoy the evening. As goofy as the concert scenario is, it introduces players to an important concept known as opportunity cost, which refers to the potential benefits we miss out on when we choose one alternative over another. Say you’re debating between a $50 outfit and a $30 one. The opportunity cost of choosing the more expensive outfit is $20, but shoppers don’t always consider that. “Opportunity cost neglect is the simple idea that when we’re faced with financial decisions, we tend not to consider alternative uses for that money.” Reframing the $30 outfit as “a $30 dress that I’m okay with plus 20 extra dollars” that could be spent elsewhere might lead you to choose the cheaper outfit. Or it might not. “Sometimes you want the $50 outfit, and that’s perfectly fine… but a lot of the time that might not be the right decision.” Like many things, taking opportunity cost into account is a balancing act. “We shouldn’t obsess over every possible opportunity that there is,” Corbin cautions, but “consider[ing] opportunity costs can lead to better financial decisions.”

Budget Busters, meanwhile, involves medium-term planning. Players have to manage checking, credit, and savings accounts while caring for their pet over a six-month period. Along with purchasing essential and non-essential items to attend to their pet’s basic needs and happiness, players have to contend with unforeseen circumstances like medical emergencies. The game introduces people to the 50-30-20 rule, a budgeting concept that involves devoting 50% of income to essentials, 30% to non-essentials, and 20% to savings. Budget Busters also explores the principle of mental accounting, the idea that aside from formal budgets, we have “categories in our head” that change our perception of money. “Let’s say you get birthday money from your relative. That money tends to be a different kind of spending money to you than money you get from your paycheck,” Corbin explains, because “money feels different in different contexts.” 

There are parallels in Budget Busters. Sometimes players receive unexpected windfalls like gifts or prizes. (My cat won $40 for being “Best in Show” at the local pet pageant.) Players get to decide whether to use the extra money on a “fun” item for their pet or put it into savings. Corbin says “gift money” is a classic example of a misleading mental account. “We tend to overspend… because it feels like it’s not even our money in a way.” In reality, though, money has “fungibility,” meaning it’s “exchangeable… across any account.” In other words, “money is money,” regardless of where it comes from.  A $10 bill, for instance, can be exchanged for two fives without changing its value. (Non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, lack this property. “You can’t exchange the picture of a cat you bought from the internet for Chipotle.”) Like Shopportunity Cost, Budget Busters focuses on both traditional financial concepts and common behavioral tendencies that affect decision-making. “None of these things are necessarily bad,” Corbin emphasizes, “but they’re things that one should be aware of… when that natural proclivity may be swaying them in the wrong way.”

Budget Busters, which focuses on monthly budgeting, also encourages players to look closely at discounts when shopping. “Sometimes the discount that looks really good from a  percentage-off perspective isn’t actually the better discount” in terms of overall budgeting and total amount of money saved, Corbin warns.

The last game, Exponential Potential, explores concepts like compound interest, debt, and investment. The premise of the game involves traveling back in time to balance debts and investments. The goal is to make your pet a millionaire. By showing players how investment decisions can affect future net worth, the game seeks to increase understanding of processes involving exponential growth. Exponential Potential introduces the concept of exponential growth bias. According to Corbin,  “We tend to underestimate things that grow exponentially.” He cites the coronavirus pandemic as an example: “Even the people who were making the graphs of Covid’s growth… it’s really hard for them to figure out how to show that to people.” Log-transformed graphs are one option, but they can be deceptive by making the slope look flatter. Similarly, when dealing with exponential growth in the financial world, “People are going to underestimate how badly they’re going to get burned” by debt, but they may also underestimate how much they’ll benefit by saving for retirement.

With compound interest, for instance, “The interest gets applied both to principle and to interest from the last time, and that’s where exponential growth happens.” In the game, players have the opportunity to adjust how much money to put toward paying off debts, investing, and saving for retirement each month. Then they travel decades into the future to see how their decisions have affected their pet’s net worth.  “We’re hoping that that kind of feedback allows you to think through… what you might have done wrong and try to correct,” Corbin says. Once again, though, raw numbers aren’t the only factor at play. “We just want people to understand what the optimal way to do this is, and if there’s a better way for them to do that psychologically, that’s fine.” Debt account aversion, for example, refers to the fact that people want to have fewer debt accounts, meaning they are often eager to pay off accounts in full when they can. Some financial advisers suggest that “because they think it’ll get the ball rolling and you’ll be more likely to pay off the next one.” According to Corbin, there isn’t a lot of evidence for that, and sometimes paying everything off at the outset isn’t ideal. For instance, “It is optimal to start thinking about retirement as soon as you can… but if you’re delaying putting money into retirement because you’re so concerned with your student loan debt,” that can be problematic. Still, Corbin understands the appeal of closing debt accounts. “I am risk-averse, which means if I have a debt I’m probably going to put more money toward that debt that I necessarily should given what the interest rates are and what I could potentially make by investing that money instead.” Financially speaking, “There’s a decent likelihood that I should just pay the minimum on my mortgage… [but] I’ve decided I’m willing to trade off those future gains for the peace of mind that if something goes wrong… I’ll be ahead on my mortgage payment.” Even in Exponential Potential, the right choices aren’t always clear-cut. Corbin describes it as a “sandbox approach” where players are given more opportunity to play around. “This is the trickiest game because there’s no perfect answer for anything,” he says. “Everything has risk.”

Another bias that can affect our financial decisions is known as present bias, the tendency to discount the future in favor of the present. Corbin offers the everyday example of staying up too late. “Nighttime Me wants to stay up and read…. Morning Me is going to be really ticked off at Nighttime Me when they’re exhausted and don’t want to get up.” Research suggests that people can have a harder time identifying with their future selves. That can easily affect our financial decisions, too. “I’m going to let future me worry about that. That guy. Whoever that is.” However, “If you can get people to identify more with that person,” they can sometimes make better decisions. Ultimately, “The game isn’t trying to force people to become investment robots.” We are biased for the present because we live in it, and that’s normal. The purpose of the game is simply “to nudge people… to worry just a little more about the future.”

“Money is basically for safety, security, and happiness,” Corbin says. The ultimate objective is to balance needs, wants, and savings to achieve those three goals both in the present and the future.

By Sophie Cox
By Sophie Cox

What is The Duke Summer Experiences Database?

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Graphics courtesy of Catherine Angst, Director of Communications in the Division of Experiential Education at Duke University.

Pre-pandemic, Duke undergraduates looking for a good summer experience might have seen something good at an in-person fair or maybe heard about an opportunity from a favorite professor. But there was a lot of luck involved.

Now, thanks to the Duke Summer Experiences database, which launched in late January, undergrads can view a variety of summer opportunities in one centralized place. They can search by area of interest, type of program, program cost, year in school, and several other filters.

“Duke Summer Experiences is a resource for all of Duke,” says Catherine Angst, Director of Communications in the Division of Experiential Education, “because it’s an easily searchable, permanent database that allows people to select the features of an opportunity that are important to them.”

Angst explains that the new database is “an evolution of the Duke summer opportunities fair and the ‘Keep Exploring’ project.”

In previous years, Duke organized an in-person fair with representatives from various summer programs. During the pandemic, the “Keep Exploring” project was created to “[provide] students with summer opportunities and mentorship during a time when not a lot of traditional opportunities were operating because of COVID.” The two programs joined forces, she said, and ultimately expanded into the Duke Summer Experiences website.

By aggregating opportunities into one place, the database should increase awareness and access for summer programs.

Dean Sarah Russell, Director of the Undergraduate Research Support Office, thinks this might be especially valuable for research opportunities, which she says tend to be less publicized. “Previously,” she says, “students might know about DukeEngage, GEO, or summer courses, but would have to rely on word of mouth or, if they were lucky, a tip from faculty or advisors to find out about smaller, lesser-known programs.”

Ms. Leigh Ann Muth-Waring, Assistant Director in Employer Relations at the Career Center, sees similar benefits to the new database: “Prior to the website’s creation, students had to actively search for information about summer programs by contacting individual departments on campus,” sometimes causing students to miss deadlines. The Duke Summer Experiences website, on the other hand, provides easy-to-navigate and up-to-date information.

Another goal of the Duke Summer Experiences database, Ms. Angst says, is to “build a community of practice where administrators can share best practices, resources, and lessons learned.”

Dr. Karen Weber, Executive Director of the Office of University Scholars and Fellows, hopes this will “enable administrators across campus to collaborate more effectively together and improve programmatic outcomes.” For instance, “They can communicate on shared initiatives, such as developing successful recruitment and marketing strategies, creating student applications, editing participation agreements, addressing student and administrative issues, engaging with faculty, and assessing programs.”

Along with making summer opportunities easier to find and encouraging administrative collaboration, Duke Summer Experiences is also beta-testing a new application process that would allow students to use one application to apply for multiple opportunities at once. Muth-Waring said the Duke Experiences Application “allows the student to complete one questionnaire with general information (name, major, etc.) which then can be used to apply to multiple Duke-sponsored summer programs.” It also provides links to other programs students might be interested in.

Ms. Angst also sees the new application system as a valuable tool. She hopes that it will reduce “application fatigue” among students looking for summer opportunities.

The Career Center is already using the new application platform for their summer Internship Funding Program, which encourages participation in unpaid or low-paying summer internships by providing financial support to students. According to Ms. Muth-Waring, the new application system “has helped us streamline our program’s application process so that it is easier and less burdensome for students.” Streamlining the process of finding summer opportunities is a major goal of the Summer Experiences website as well. Ultimately, Ms. Muth-Waring says, “both the Duke Summer Experiences Database and the Duke Experiences Application are creating an easier way for students to learn about and apply to university-sponsored summer programs, research opportunities, internships, and funding sources.” For students seeking summer opportunities through Duke, the Summer Experiences website can make the process easier.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Remembrance of Wordles Past

Devang Thakkar, a fourth-year PhD candidate at Duke University, recently created an archive  for Wordle that gives users unlimited access to past Wordle games. Gray tiles indicate letters not found anywhere in the correct word, yellow indicates letters that are in the word but not in the right place, and green indicates correctly placed letters.

Writing this story was dangerous. Before, I was only vaguely aware of the existence of Wordle, a wildly popular online word game created by Josh Wardle and recently bought by the New York Times. Now I can’t stop playing it. The objective of the game sounds deceptively simple: try to guess the right five-letter word in six attempts or fewer.

Thanks to Devang Thakkar, a fourth-year PhD student in Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at Duke, the 200+ Wordle games released before I discovered its charms are readily accessible online. So now I’m making up for lost time.

Thakkar recently spent a weekend building an archive of every Wordle game in existence. You can play them in any order. You can start at the beginning. You can start with today’s Wordle and work backward. You can sit down and play eight in a row. Just hypothetically, of course.

Devang Thakkar became hooked on Wordle when his roommate introduced it to him, but he wanted a way to access old Wordles as well. First, he experimented with manually changing the date on his browser to trick the computer into showing him old Wordles. However, his browser gave him an error message if he tried to go back more than fourteen days. To get around that, Mr. Thakkar wrote a Python script using a Python library called Selenium, which allowed him “to basically go back as much as you want.” 

Thakkar combined his own data with an open-source Wordle project called WordMaster created by Katherine Peterson. With an open-source project, Thakkar says, “You put your work out there, and then someone else adds to it.”

Devang Thakkar at the 2020 Data Through Design exhibition in New York.
Photograph courtesy of Devang Thakkar.

Whereas WordMaster randomly generates new five-letter words, Thakkar’s archive provides access to “official” Wordle games from the past. While there were many random Wordle generators already in existence, it was the usage of the official Wordle list and the ability to go back to a particular Wordle that set this archive apart. Thakkar also added features like the ability to share your answers with others and an option that lets users access Wordle games in a random order.

Thakkar tells me the project was “just for fun.” “I was bored… so I was like, ‘let’s make something!’” he says. Nevertheless, “That is essentially what I do for my work as well; I write code.” In the Dave Lab, Devang Thakkar uses sequencing data to study the origins of different types of lymphomas.

In his free time, Devang Thakkar enjoys woodworking and metalworking. Pictured here are two of his projects, a wooden bowl and his own dining room table.
Photographs courtesy of Devang Thakkar.

When he’s not working or making Wordle archives, Devang Thakkar can often be found in Duke’s Innovation Co-Lab, where he enjoys woodworking and metalworking. His projects range from creations intended as gifts, like a laptop stand and beer caddy, to his own dining room table. Thakkar says the hobby, being very different from his normal work, helps him maintain work-life balance.

The Wordle project, on the other hand, required coding skills Thakkar uses daily. “This is just like work for me, but for fun.” He enjoys graphic design and board games and has “a special affection for board games with words.”

As for the Wordle archive, Mr. Thakkar says he never expected it to become so popular. He thought it would mostly be used by his friends, but the archive quickly accumulated millions of weekly users. “People keep sending me screenshots of their friends sending them this website,” he says.

Meanwhile, I’ve started noticing Wordle references everywhere. Just after I spoke to Thakkar about his project, I happened to stumble across a link to BRDL, a delightful Wordle spinoff that uses four-letter birding codes instead of words. By blind luck, I guessed the right code on my second try: AMGO, American goldfinch. A few days later, I overheard two students talking about the daily Wordle. Clearly, I’m not the only one who’s become hooked on the game. Fortunately for everyone who is, Devang Thakkar’s Wordle archive, which he called “Remembrance of Wordles Past,” offers unlimited access.

By Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

“Rainforest Radio”: Linguistic Ecology in the Western Amazon

Radio host Rita Tunay interviews a local elder on the Kichwa-language radio program “Mushuk Ñampi” [A New Path].
Photographs from Dr. Georgia Ennis.

Starting at the pre-dawn hours of 3 or 4 AM, the Kichwa people of Napo, Ecuador, gather with family and spend time talking and listening and drinking tea, in a tradition known as Wayusa Upina.

In Kichwa, the verb “to listen” also means “to understand,” says Penn State anthropologist Georgia Ennis, who spoke at Duke last week. Wayusa Upina provides natural opportunities for children to learn from parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. Kichwa pedagogies, Ennis explains, “have a lot less to do with a traditional classroom.”

But as multigenerational households become less common and Kichwa children spend more time in schools, the tradition has become less widespread. Meanwhile, other traditions, like radio programs in Kichwa, are becoming more common, and “the radio ends up filling the space” that multigenerational conversation might otherwise fill. Through music videos, social media, live performances, books, and radio programs, the people of Napo are finding new roles for an old language.

The town of Archidona, Ecuador, located in the Western Amazon.

Ennis studies language oppression and reclamation and is broadly interested in the relationship between ecological and linguistic change. “How can we bring language and the environment together?” she asks. While her work was initially focused on language standardization, she became interested in the environmental aspects during her research. The two issues aren’t separate; they are linked in complex ways. To explain ecology in a linguistic sense, Dr. Ennis offers a definition from Einar Haugen: “Language ecology may be defined as the study of interactions between any given language and its environment… The true environment of a language is the society that uses it as one of its codes.”

Many scientists believe we are witnessing a sixth mass extinction, and extinction is occurring at unprecedented rates, but Dr. Ennis says we are losing another kind of diversity as well: the diversity of languages. Her own work focuses on Upper Napo Kichwa in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Though there are 47,000 speakers, there has been a language shift toward Spanish among younger generations. “Spanish really remains the dominant language of social life,” she says, even though the majority of the residents are Kichwa.

The concept of “language endangerment,” or the rapid loss of marginalized languages as speakers adopt dominant languages instead, is complex and not without its critics. Dr. Ennis believes languages like Kichwa are “actively oppressed,” not passively endangered.

There are eight varieties of Kichwa in the Andean highlands and the Amazon. “Unified Kichwa,” which Dr. Ennis says is based on reconstruction of Andean varieties, was adopted as an official language of Ecuador in 2008, but this standardized version fails to capture local variation. In Napo, Dr. Ennis found that “the regional linguistic varieties were understood to be inherited from your elders.” Initially, she had “a much stronger stance” against standardized language, but she now sees certain benefits to Unified Kichwa. It can, for instance, help encourage bilingual education. Still, it risks outcompeting local dialects. Many of the people she worked with in Napo are actively trying to prevent that.

The reverse of language endangerment or oppression is language revitalization or reclamation, which aims to preserve linguistic diversity by increasing the number of speakers and broadening the use of language. Media production, for instance, can help create social, political, and economic value for Upper Napo Kichwa.

Ofelia Salazar of the Association of Upper Napo Kichwa midwives weaves a shigra bag from the natural fiber pitak.

In Napo, Dr. Ennis realized that many Kichwa are interested in reclaiming more than just language. They are also working to preserve traditional environmental practices and intergenerational pedagogies. None of these issues exist in a vacuum, and recognizing their links is important. Dr. Ennis wants people to realize that “ecologies are more than just biological ecosystems.” Through the course of her work, she’s become more aware of the ties between linguistic and environmental issues. Environmental issues, she says, are present in daily life; they shape what people talk about. Conversations like these are essential. Whether in radio programs or casual discussions, political debates or household conversations before the sun has risen, the things we talk about and the stories we tell affect how we view the world and how we respond to it.

By Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Leadership As ‘Groundskeeping,’ Not ‘Gatekeeping,’ and Other “Lessons From Plants”

Dr. Beronda Montgomery, author of Lessons from Plants, recently spoke at Duke University. (Photos: Marie Claire Chelini, Biology Dept.)

Plants do not passively exist, leaving their survival to the whims of fate; they notice their environments and respond accordingly, says Dr. Beronda Montgomery, a professor, writer, science communicator, and researcher from Michigan State University who studies plants and what we can learn from them.

She visited Duke last week to talk about her recently published book, Lessons from Plants, and the inspiration behind it.

Plants perceive and respond to their surroundings in myriad ways, from turning toward a light source to reacting to differences in temperature, humidity, and nutrient availability. Even the same stimulus can cause different reactions in different situations, said Montgomery, whose research involves photosynthetic organisms, especially Arabidopsis plants and cyanobacteria. She is broadly interested in how organisms respond to and are affected by their environments.

For example, light can serve as either a “go signal” or a “stop signal,” depending how much of it is available. In low light conditions, plants invest more energy in stem elongation as they seek light. When they have sufficient light, on the other hand, plants undergo “de-etiolation,” creating shorter stems and better developed leaves.

Montgomery doesn’t just learn about plants; she learns from them as well. And in some cases, she says, plants might make better teachers than humans.

Montgomery spoke in the Penn Pavilion at Duke.

One area Montgomery has written about extensively, both in Lessons from Plants and elsewhere, is equity. As she points out, “Equal aptitude can result in different outcomes depending on environment.” According to Montgomery, “Humans, by and large, have an expectation of growth for plants,” so when something goes wrong, we look to external factors. We blame the caretaker, not personal defects in the plant. With humans, on the other hand, “We recruit people… who have demonstrated success elsewhere,” fueling a vicious cycle that can exacerbate inequities and limit opportunities. Montgomery talks about “the need to move from leadership as gatekeeping to groundskeeping.”

When students or employees struggle, she believes we should scrutinize mentors and caregivers instead of automatically attributing failure to personal defects. After all, “We would never say… ‘let me teach you to have turgid leaves’ to a plant” or tell it to simply try harder. We don’t eliminate houseplants that aren’t thriving. We ask ourselves what they need—whether it’s light, fertilizer, or water—and make changes accordingly.

“What would happen,” Montgomery asks, “if we saw things like equity as essential to our existence?” She stresses that questions like these can’t remain hypothetical. She points to a quote in Breathe, a book by Imani Perry, that captures the importance of applying what we learn: “Awareness is not a virtue in and of itself, not without a moral imperative.”

Nevertheless, Montgomery believes that “We have to live in the system we have while we transform it.” Sometimes, just as managed fires can make forests healthier and safer, there is a need for “intentional disruption” in the human world. “We seem to want change without change,” when we should instead be embracing the process of change as well as the result. “Change doesn’t mean that what happened in the past was all evil. It just means that we have to keep moving.” Moving forward is something plants do well. Season by season, year by year, they keep growing. Montgomery speaks of the tulips that helped bring her peace during a period of personal and collective grief. In spite of everything, the tulips she had planted in the fall came up in the springtime, ready for warmer weather.

Plants don’t just respond to change; they prepare for it. In the fall, when deciduous trees lose their leaves, they are “actively prepar[ing] for rest,” something Montgomery thinks we could all learn from.

Hope, according to Montgomery, means that “some things have to die, and some live,” and that “despite what’s going on around you, you have to find the power and strength to go on.”

“I aspire to hope,” she says.

Montgomery also did a book signing for Lessons from Plants which was published in April of this year.

Montgomery says her guiding life principle is reciprocity. It seems fitting, then, that she has taught her son to appreciate plants from an early age, just as her mother did for her. When Montgomery’s son was nine months old, she planted a tree in his honor with the idea that he would be its steward. Sometimes, her son was taller than the tree. Other times, it was the other way around. When Montgomery’s son was seven, the tree became ill, but they treated it successfully, prompting conversations about sickness and recovery and what it means to care for something. Throughout his childhood, her son’s tree remained a valuable conversation starter. It still is.

“He’s a second-year student in college, and he still asks about his tree.”

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

How To Hold a Bee and Not Get Stung

Pictured from left to right are Lindsey Weyant, Andrew McCallum, and Will Marcus.

On Saturday, September 25, the Wild Ones club hosted an insect-themed outing with Fred Nijhout, an entomology professor at Duke. We visited a pond behind the Biological Sciences Building bordered by vegetation. Apparently, the long grasses and flowers are prime habitat for insects, which are often attracted to sunny areas and edge habitat. Along with several other students, I practiced “sweeping” for insects by swishing long nets through vegetation, a delightfully satisfying activity, especially on such a gorgeous fall day.

A species of skipper feeding on a flower. According to Fred Nijhout, the best way to distinguish butterflies (including skippers) from moths is by looking for knobbed antennae, characteristic of butterflies but not moths.

Professor Nijhout says much of his research focuses on butterflies and moths, but the insect biology class he teaches has a much broader focus. So does this outing. In just a couple hours, our group finds a wide array of species.

A milkweed bug (left) and a soldier beetle, two of the species we saw on Sunday.

Many of the insects we see belong to the order Hemiptera, a group sometimes referred to as “true bugs” that includes more than 80,000 species. We find leafhoppers that jump out of our nets while we’re trying to look at them, a stilt-legged bug that moves much more gracefully on its long legs than I ever could on stilts, spittlebugs that encase themselves in foam as larvae and then metamorphose into jumping adults sometimes called froghoppers, and yet another Hemipteran with a wonderfully whimsical name (just kidding): the plant bug.

Professor Nijhout shows us a milkweed leaf teeming with aphids (also in the order Hemiptera) and ants. He explains that this is a common pairing. Aphids feed on the sap in leaf veins, which is nutrient-poor, so “they have special pumps in their guts that get rid of the water and the sugars” and concentrate the proteins. In the process, aphids secrete a sugary substance called honeydew, which attracts ants.

The honeydew excreted as a waste product by the aphids provides the ants with a valuable food source, but the relationship is mutualistic. The presence of the ants affords protection to the aphids. Symbiosis, however, isn’t the only means of avoiding predation. Some animals mimic toxic look-alikes to avoid being eaten. Our group finds brightly colored hoverflies, which resemble bees but are actually harmless flies, sipping nectar from flowers. Professor Nijhout also points out a brightly colored milkweed bug, which looks toxic because it is.

Sixteen species of hoverfly, all of which are harmless. Note that hoverflies, like all flies, have only one pair of wings, whereas bees have two.
Image from Wikipedia user Alvesgaspar (GNU Free Documentation License, Creative Commons license).

Humans, too, can be fooled by things that look dangerous but aren’t. As it turns out, even some of our most basic ideas about risk avoidance—like not playing with bees or eating strange berries—are sometimes red herrings. When we pass clusters of vibrant purple berries on a beautyberry bush, Professor Nijhout tells us they’re edible. “They’re sweet,” he says encouragingly. (I wish I could agree. They’re irresistibly beautiful, but every time I’ve tasted them, I’ve found them too tart.) And on several occasions, to the endless fascination of the Wild Ones, he catches bees with his bare hands and offers them to nearby students. Male carpenter bees (which can be identified by the patch of yellow on their faces) have no stinger, and according to Professor Nijhout, their mandibles are too weak to penetrate human skin. It’s hard not to flinch at the thought of holding an angry bee, but there’s a certain thrill to it as well. When I cup my hands around one of them, I find the sensation thoroughly pleasant, rather like a fuzzy massage. The hard part is keeping them from escaping; it doesn’t take long for the bee to slip between my hands and fly away.

Professor Nijhout in his element, about to capture a male carpenter bee (below) by hand.

The next day, I noticed several bees feeding on a flowering bush on campus. Eager to test my newfound knowledge, I leaned closer. Even when I saw the telltale yellow faces of the males, I was initially hesitant. But as I kept watching, I felt more wonder than fear. For perhaps the first time, I noticed the way their buzzy, vibrating bodies go momentarily still while they poke their heads into blossoms in search of the sweet nectar inside. Their delicate wings, blurred by motion when they fly, almost shimmer in the sunlight while they feed.

Gently, I reached out and cupped a male bee in my hands, noticing the way his tiny legs skittered across my fingers and the soft caress of his gossamer wings against my skin. When I released him, his small body lifted into the air like a fuzzy UFO.

I realize this new stick-my-face-close-to-buzzing-bees pastime could backfire, so I don’t necessarily recommend it, especially if you have a bee allergy, but if you’re going to get face-to-face with a carpenter bee, you might at least want to check the color of its face.

Damla Ozdemir, a member of the Wild Ones, with a giant cockroach in Professor Nijhout’s classroom.

If you could hold all the world’s insects in one hand and all the humans in the other, the insects would outweigh us. More than 900,000 species of insects have been discovered, and there may be millions more still unknown to science. Given their abundance and diversity, even the experts often encounter surprises.“Every year I see things I’ve never seen before,” Professor Nijhout told us. Next time you step outside, take a closer look at your six-legged company. You might be surprised by what you see.

By Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Carrying On a Legacy of “Whimsical” Gardening

A contorted hardy orange tree (Poncirus trifoliata) in the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden. The brightly colored structures in the background are pollinator houses.

On Wednesday, September 15, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens hosted a drop-in event in the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden, an area near the main entrance with a focus on organic and sustainable gardening. This part of Duke Gardens is almost ten years old, but Wednesday’s event, led by curator Jason Holmes and horticulturist Nick Schwab, showcased what makes it unique.

The entrance to the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden is marked by a lovely arbor draped with vines. Inside, the winding paths are lined with flowers, fruiting trees, and beds of herbs and vegetables. Bees and butterflies flit here and there, bright against the rainy sky.

Holmes finds me admiring a display of carnivorous plants. He introduces himself and shows me around.

Flirting with danger: a fly perches on a Venus flytrap. The Venus flytrap is a carnivorous plant native only to parts of the Carolinas.

One of the first things I notice is the array of pollinator houses scattered amongst flowers and attached to wooden structures. Many plants rely on pollinators to reproduce, and the pollinator houses can help attract native species like mason bees and leaf-cutter wasps, but Holmes says they have another purpose as well: bringing awareness to the importance of pollinators.

Along with the pollinator houses, which are designed to attract native bees, the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden has beehives for honey bees. Though honey bees are not originally native to the New World, they are important pollinators, and their populations are declining. Like many native bees, honey bees are threatened in part by habitat loss and pesticide use, but gardeners and landowners can help.

The Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden is only about an acre in size, but exploring it feels like walking through a museum, a new exhibit around every corner. Over here, raised beds of hot peppers, organized by level of spiciness. (“I don’t do spicy,” says Holmes, but even Schwab, who has sampled the garden’s hottest peppers, tells me he often finds the less spicy ones to be more enjoyable.) Over there, clusters of pumpkins. Despite the steamy day, the pumpkins are a reminder that fall is coming. I’ve been noticing subtle hints of fall for weeks—brisk mornings, breezes that send dry leaves skittering across pavement—but despite these tantalizing harbingers of autumn, some days still seem distinctly summery. As it turns out, this garden is experiencing a similar transition.

A recipe for “Peri-Peri Sauce” within a display of hot peppers. Peppers are common in many cuisines, but they are originally native to tropical America.

Holmes and Schwab, along with other dedicated gardeners, are in the process of phasing out summer vegetables like okra, melons, cucumbers, zucchini, and eggplant and planting crops like cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower in anticipation of cooler weather.

Change is something of a constant in the garden. Holmes likes to tell everyone who works with him that “every day’s going to be different.” When I ask if he has a favorite season in the garden, Holmes mentions two: “I love the cool-down of fall, and I love the rebirth of spring.” As for winter, Holmes describes it as a period of much-needed rest—for both the garden and the gardeners.

Potted succulents and clusters of bright orange pumpkins add to the garden’s whimsical feel.

The Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden is a fully functioning garden, donating most of its produce to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, but it is also a space for discovery. Since its inception in 2012, the garden has sought to foster curiosity about gardening and the natural world.

The garden also houses a chicken coop, which Holmes says is constructed out of recycled materials from local factories. Holmes picks up a white silkie chicken, holding her gently before prompting her to join the others in the enclosure outside. He tells me she’s acting “broody,” exhibiting a tendency to behave as though she is incubating eggs.

Jason Holmes with one of the chickens. Holmes also cares for chickens at his home, but not because he wants to eat their eggs. He considers them “companions” instead.

When I ask Holmes about Charlotte Brody, he describes a woman who lived in Kinston, North Carolina, and invited kids to her home to learn about organic gardening and discover its joys for themselves. Holmes says Brody had a “whimsical, free approach” to gardening.

“Whimsical” describes this garden well. Tiny, orange spheres dangling from bushes. A tree frog peering out from a pollinator house. Hand-written signs nestled amongst peppers, offering recipes for “Peri-Peri Sauce” and “Hot Honey.” Everything from cacti to chickens to oranges coexisting peacefully in the same garden.

Before I leave, I linger under the arbor. The sun streams through the dome above me. The frog is still hiding in the same pollinator house as before. Looking around, I see more than a small garden. I see the legacy of a woman who devoted her time to gardening joyfully and sustainably and teaching others to do the same.

The arbor at the entrance to the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden. Despite the rain earlier in the afternoon, the sun had come out again by the time I left.

Jason Holmes, Nick Schwab, and the many workers and volunteers who have put their time and effort into this garden are continuing that legacy. Holmes hopes that visitors will find inspiration here, whatever that means to them. I know I did, and next time I come back, I’ll wander the paths and notice the changing seasons, ready to be inspired again.

By Sophia Cox, Class of 2025

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