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

Author: Sophie Cox Page 1 of 2

How Concerned Should You Be About AirTags?

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Photograph of an AirTag from Wikimedia Commons. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. Creator: KKPCW.

I didn’t even know what an AirTag was until I attended a cybersecurity talk by Nick Tripp, senior manager of Duke’s IT Security Office, but according to Tripp, AirTag technology is “something that the entire Duke community probably needs to be aware of.”

An AirTag is a small tracking device that can connect to any nearby Apple device using Bluetooth. AirTags were released by Apple in April 2021 and are designed to help users keep track of items like keys and luggage. Tripp himself has one attached to his keys. If he loses them, he can open the “Find My” app on his phone (installed by default on Apple devices), and if anyone else with an Apple device has been near his keys since he lost them, the Bluetooth technology will let him see where his keys were when the Apple device user passed them—or took them.

According to Tripp, AirTags have two distinct advantages over earlier tracking devices. First, they use technology that lets the “Find My” app provide “precise location tracking”—within an inch of the AirTag’s location. Second, because AirTags use the existing Apple network, “every iPhone and iPad in the world becomes a listening device.”

You can probably guess where this is going. Unfortunately, the very features that make AirTags so useful for finding lost or stolen items also make them susceptible to abuse. There are numerous reports of AirTags being used to stalk people. Tripp has seen that problem on Duke’s campus, too. He gives the example of someone going to a bar and later finding an AirTag in their bag or jacket without knowing who put it there. The IT Security Office at Duke sees about 2-3 suspected cyberstalking incidents per month, with 1-2 confirmed each year. Cyberstalking, Tripp emphasizes, isn’t confined to the internet. It “straddles the internet and the real world.” Not all of the cyberstalking reports Duke deals with involve tracking devices, but “the availability of low-cost tracking technology” is a concern. In the wrong hands, AirTags can enable dangerous stalking behavior.

As part of his IT security work, and with his wife’s permission, Tripp dropped an AirTag into his wife’s bag to better understand the potential for nefarious use of AirTags by attackers. Concerningly, he found that he was able to track her movement using the app on his phone—not constantly, but about every five minutes, and if a criminal is trying to stalk someone, knowing their location every five minutes is more than enough.

Fortunately, Apple has created certain safety features to help prevent the malicious use of AirTags. For instance, if someone has been near the same AirTag for several hours (such as Tripp’s wife while there was an AirTag in her bag), they’ll get a pop-up notification on their phone after a random period of time between eight and twenty-four hours warning them that “Your current location can be seen by the owner of this AirTag.” Also, an AirTag will start making a particular sound if it has been away from its owner for eight to twenty-four hours. (It will emit a different sound if the owner of the AirTag is nearby and actively trying to find their lost item using their app.) Finally, each AirTag broadcasts a certain Bluetooth signal, a “public key,” associated with the AirTag’s “private key.” To help thwart potential hackers, that public key changes every eight to twenty-four hours. (Are you wondering yet what’s special about the eight-to-twenty-four hour time period? Tripp says it’s meant to be “frequently enough that Apple can give some privacy to the owner of that AirTag” but “infrequently enough that they can establish a pattern of malicious activity.”)

But despite these safety features, a highly motivated criminal could get around them. Tripp and his team built a “DIY Stealth AirTag” in an attempt to anticipate what measures criminals might take to deactivate or counteract Apple’s built-in security features. (Except when he’s presenting to other IT professionals, Tripp makes a point of not revealing the exact process his team used to make their Stealth AirTag. He wants to inform the public about the potential dangers of tracking technology while avoiding giving would-be criminals any ideas.) Tripp’s wife again volunteered to be tracked, this time with a DIY Stealth AirTag that Tripp placed in her car. He found that the modified AirTag effectively and silently tracked his wife’s car. Unlike the original AirTag, their stealthy version could create a map of everywhere his wife had driven, complete with red markers showing the date, time, and coordinates of each location. An AirTag that has been modified by a skilled hacker could let attackers see “not just where a potential victim is going but when they go there and how often.”

“The AirTag cat is out of the bag, so to speak,” Tripp says. He believes Apple should update their AirTag design to make the safety features harder to circumvent. Nonetheless, “it is far more likely that someone will experience abuse of a retail AirTag” than one modified by a hacker to be stealthier. So how can you protect yourself? Tripp has several suggestions.

  1. Know the AirTag beep indicating that an AirTag without its owner is nearby, potentially in your belongings.
  2. If you have an iPhone, watch for AirTag alerts. If you receive a notification warning you about a nearby AirTag, don’t ignore it.
  3. If you have an Android, Tripp recommends installing the “Tracker Detect” app from Apple because unlike iPhone users, Android users don’t get automatic pop-up notifications if an AirTag has been near them for several hours. The “Tracker Detect” Android app isn’t a perfect solution—you still won’t get automatic notifications; you’ll have to manually open the app to check for nearby trackers. But Tripp still considers it worthwhile.
  4. For iPhone users, make sure you have tracking notifications configured in the “Find My” app. You can go into the app and click “Me,” then “Customize Tracking Notifications.” Make sure the app has permission to send you notifications.
  5. Know how to identify an AirTag if you find one. If you find an AirTag that isn’t yours, and you have an iPhone, go into the “Find My” app, click “Items,” and then swipe up until you see the “Identify Found Item” option. That tool lets you scan the AirTag by holding it near your phone. It will then show the AirTag’s serial number and the last four digits of the owner’s phone number, which can be useful for the police. “If I found one,” Tripp says, “I think it’s worth making a police report.”

It’s worth noting that owning an AirTag does not put you at higher risk of stalking or other malicious behavior. The concern, whether or not you personally use AirTags, is that attackers can buy AirTags themselves and use them maliciously. Choosing to use AirTags to keep track of important items, meanwhile, won’t hurt you and may be worth considering, especially if you travel often or are prone to misplacing things. Not all news about AirTags is bad. They’ve helped people recover lost items, from luggage and wallets to photography gear and an electric scooter.

“I actually think this technology is extremely useful,” Tripp says. It’s the potential for abuse by attackers that’s the problem.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Anyone Can Be a “Math Person”

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Dr. Francis Su, a mathematician and professor at Harvey Mudd College and the author of “Mathematics for Human Flourishing,” wants you to know that math can be beautiful. As these “infinitely quartered” squares show, 1/4 + 1/(42) + 1/(43) + … = 1/3. Image attribution: Tdadamemd, via Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Francis Su, Ph.D., visited Duke to talk about math. He began by talking about art.

Su, a mathematician and professor at Harvey Mudd College, displayed “Hope,” an 1886 painting by George Frederic Watts. He asked the audience to look at it, really look at it, and think about what’s happening in the painting. At first glance, it shows a blindfolded woman holding a wooden object. She seems to be in pain. But the more time we spend looking, the more we notice. We might notice that there’s a single star above her. We might notice that the wooden object is a lyre with only one string left attached. We might notice, too, that the woman is plucking that final string and straining to hear its music. 

If we take the time to explore the history of the painting, we might learn that Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about the same painting in a sermon. Su quoted a line from that sermon: “Who has not had to face the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?” We find beauty in art, and often we find it relatable as well. Art invites us to look closer, to wonder, to feel, to ask questions, to imagine.

“Why,” Su asks then, “don’t we approach mathematics the way that we approach art?”

Professor Francis Su’s book, “Mathematics for Human Flourishing.”

Whether we consider ourselves “math people” or not, we rarely if ever hear mathematics discussed as an affirmation of human virtues and desires—love, beauty, truth, the “expectation of enchantment.” Su wants to change that. In his book “Mathematics for Human Flourishing” and in his talk at Duke, he envisions mathematics as beautiful, inclusive, and accessible to anyone.

Along with the painting “Hope,” Su’s first slide shows a quote by Simone Weil: “Every being cries out silently to be read differently.” Simone Weil, according to Su, was a “French religious mystic” and “widely revered philosopher,” but she also had a deep interest in math. Her older brother, André Weil, was an influential mathematician whose mathematical achievements often overshadowed her own. In a letter to a friend published posthumously in the book “Waiting for God,” Simone Weil wrote: “I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides.” Su sometimes wonders how Simone’s relationship to mathematics would have been different if André had not been her brother. Again, “Every being cries out silently to be read differently.” According to Su, when Simone Weil speaks of “reading” someone, she means “to interpret or make a judgment about them.”

Su has a friend, Christopher Jackson, who is an inmate in a high-security prison, serving a thirty-two year sentence for involvement in armed robberies as a teenager. When you think about people who do math, Su asks, would you think of Chris?  “We create societal norms about who does math,” and Chris doesn’t fit those norms. And yet he has been studying mathematics for years. After studying algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus while in prison, he sent a letter to Su requesting help in furthering his mathematics education. The two men still correspond regularly, and Chris is now studying topology and other branches of mathematics.

“Every being cries out silently to be read differently.”

Why do math in the first place? Just as you can take your car to a mechanic without fully understanding how it works yourself, we might think of math as “only for the elite few” or perhaps as “a means to an end,” a tool “to make you ‘college and career ready.’” Su sees it differently. He views math in terms of human flourishing, “a wholeness of being and doing.” He points to three words from other languages: eudaemonia, a Greek term for “the overarching good in life”; shalom, a Hebrew word often used as a greeting and roughly translated as “peace”; and salaam, an Arabic word with a similar meaning to shalom.

The pattern on Romanesco broccoli is a fractal, common in both math and nature. Image credit: Francis Su

“What attracts me to music,” Su says, “isn’t playing scales over and over again.” But once you “experience a symphony,” you might see the value in playing scales. Can we learn to think of math the same way? Here, Su quoted mathematician Olga Taussky-Todd: “The yearning for and the satisfaction gained from mathematical insight brings the subject near to art.”

Beauty and awe probably aren’t the first words that come to mind when most of us think of math, but Su believes math can unlock “transcendent beauty.” He references a quote by C.S. Lewis: “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” That is what math at its best can do for us. It can help us see the big picture and realize that we’re “just scratching the surface of something really profound.”

“Math is not a single ‘ability,’” Su says. “In reality, math is a multi-dimensional set of virtues.” When learning or teaching math, we often focus more on skills like recalling facts and algorithms, factoring polynomials, or taking a derivative. But Su believes more important lessons are at play: virtues like persistence, creativity, a thirst for deep knowledge, and what he calls the expectation of enchantment. And, he says, employers are often much more interested in virtues than in skills. “If you want to be really practical about this—and I don’t, with mathematics, but if you do—then it’s actually the virtues that are more important than the skills,” Su says.

One basic human desire that Su believes math can help fulfill is the desire for truth, which, in turn, can help build virtues like a thirst for deep knowledge and the ability to think for oneself, which can help us figure out what’s true instead of just blindly trusting authorities. “Truth is under attack,” Su says. “Misinformation is everywhere.” Su wants to teach his students “to think, to be ‘that person who doesn’t need to look at the Ikea instructions.’” But he also wants them to view math as more than just a means to an end. “It’s my responsibility to help my students remember the beauty” in math and to understand that their dignity as human beings isn’t dependent on their grades.

Along with truth and beauty, he believes math can and should bring opportunities for exploration and discovery. “My role isn’t to be a teacher,” he says. “My role is to be a co-explorer.” He recalls his own excitement when he first saw a Menger cube, or Menger sponge, cut along its diagonal. The resulting cross-section is beautiful and, yes, enchanting. “What would it look like for classrooms to be like that?” During the pandemic, Su started adding more reflection-focused questions to his exams, questions like “Consider one mathematical idea from the course that you have found beautiful, and explain why it is beautiful to you.” Even more traditional math questions can be phrased in an “exploratory” way. Su gives the example of a question that asks students to make two rectangles, one with a bigger perimeter and one with a bigger area.

A visual representation of Nicomachus’s Theorem.
Image from Cmglee, via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Another desire or virtue important in the field of mathematics is justice. Su wants math to be accessible to all, but not everyone has had positive experiences with math or feels like they belong there. As an analogy, Su talks about receiving dishes from a “secret menu” when visiting certain Chinese restaurants with friends who are fluent in Chinese. When he goes there on his own and requests the “secret menu,” however, he is sometimes turned away or told that he wouldn’t like those dishes. “Are people side-by-side in the same restaurant having different experiences” in math, too? “Who are you to say they do or don’t belong in mathematics?”

Even Su himself hasn’t always had wholly positive experiences in math. One of his professors once told him he didn’t “have what it takes to become a successful mathematician,” and he almost quit his Ph.D. program. Instead, he switched to a different advisor who had encouraged him to stick with it. Meanwhile, he surrounded himself with people who could remind him why he loved math. Math as a field can be competitive, but “if you think of mathematics as human flourishing… then that’s not a zero-sum game anymore.” 

In Su’s words, “we’re all math teachers” because “we all pass on attitudes about math to others.” He says studies show that parents can pass on “math anxiety” to their kids. But Su encourages people to “believe that you and everyone can flourish in mathematics.” Simone Weil. Christopher Jackson. And you. 

Who will you read differently?

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Why Do Some Dogs Need High Chairs, and How Can Genetics Help?

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Jake, a German shepherd dog in a Bailey chair. Dogs with megaesophagus must eat in a vertical position to help food travel to their stomachs.
Photo credit: Beth Grant

Some dogs have to eat in a high chair—or, more specifically, a Bailey Chair. The chair keeps them in a vertical position while they eat so that gravity can do the work their bodies can’t: moving food from the mouth to the stomach.

These dogs have megaesophagus, an esophagus disorder that can prevent dogs from properly digesting food and absorbing nutrients. When you swallow a bite of food, it travels down a muscular tube, the esophagus, to the stomach. In humans, the esophagus is vertical, so our esophageal muscles don’t have to fight against gravity. But because dogs are quadrupeds, a dog’s esophagus is more horizontal, so “there is a greater burden on peristaltic contractions to transport the food into the stomach.” In dogs with megaesophagus, the esophagus is dilated, and those contractions are less effective. Instead of moving properly into the stomach, food can remain in the esophagus, exacerbating the problem and preventing proper digestion and nutrient absorption. 

Leigh Anne Clark, Ph.D., an associate professor at Clemson University, recently spoke at Duke about megaesophagus in dogs and its genetic underpinnings. She has authored dozens of publications on dog genetics, including five cover features. Her research primarily involves “[mapping] alleles and genes that underlie disease in dogs.” In complex diseases like megaesophagus, that’s easier said than done. “This disease has a spectrum,” Clark says, and “Spoiler: that makes it more complicated to map.”

Clinical signs of megaesophagus, or mega for short, include regurgitation, coughing, loss of appetite, and weight loss. (We might use the word “symptom” to talk about human conditions, but “a symptom is something someone describes—e.g., I feel nauseous. But dogs can’t talk, so we can only see ‘clinical signs.’”) Complications of mega can include aspiration pneumonia and, in severe cases, gastroesophageal intussusception, an emergency situation in which dogs “suck their stomach up into their esophagus.”

Leigh Anne Clarke of Clemson University

Sometimes megaesophagus resolves on its own with age, but when it doesn’t it requires lifelong management. Mega has no cure, but management can involve vertical feeding, smaller and more frequent meals, soft foods, and sometimes medication. Even liquid water can cause problems, so some dogs with mega receive “cubed water,” made by adding a “gelatinous material” to water, instead of a normal water bowl.

In dogs, mega can be either congenital, meaning present at birth, or acquired. In cases of acquired megaesophagus, the condition is “usually secondary to something else,” and the root cause is often never determined. (Humans can get mega, too, but as with acquired mega in dogs, mega in humans is usually caused by a preexisting condition. The best human comparison, according to Clark, might be achalasia, a rare disorder that causes difficulty swallowing.) Clark’s current research focuses on the congenital form of the disease in dogs.

Her laboratory recently published a paper investigating the genetic foundation of mega. Unlike some diseases, mega isn’t caused by just one genetic mutation, so determining what genes might be at play required some genetic detective work. “You see mega across breeds,” Clark says, which suggests an environmental component, but the disease is more prevalent in some breeds than others. For instance, 28 percent of all diagnoses are in German shepherds. That was a “red flag” indicating that genes were at least partly responsible.

Clark and her collaborators chose to limit their research study to German shepherds. Despite including a wide range of dogs in the study, they noticed that males were significantly overrepresented. Clark thinks that estrogen, a hormone more abundant in females, may have a protective effect against mega.

Clark and her team performed a genome-wide association study (GWAS) to look for alleles that are more common in dogs with mega. One allele that turned out to be a major risk factor was a variant of the MCHR2 gene, which plays a role in feeding behaviors. In breeds where mega is overrepresented, like German shepherds, “we have a situation where the predominant allele in the population is also the risk allele,” says Clark.

Using the results of the study, they developed a test that can identify which version of the gene a given dog has. The test, available at veterinary testing companies, is designed “to help breeders reduce the frequency of the risk allele and to plan matings that are less likely to produce affected puppies.”

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

“Of Sound Mind”: a Discussion of the Hearing Brain

“To me [this image] captures the wonder, the awe, the beauty of sound and the brain that tries to make sense of it,” said professor Nina Kraus, Northwestern University researcher and author of “Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World.”

Stop. What do you hear?

We might not always think about the sounds around us, but our brains are always listening, said Northwestern University professor Nina Kraus.

Kraus, auditory researcher and author of “Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World,” spoke via Zoom to a Duke audience in October. She has published more than four hundred papers on the auditory system in humans and other animals and how it’s affected by conditions like autism, aging, and concussion. She discussed some of her findings and how “the sound mind” affects us in our day-to-day lives.

One of the slides from Kraus’s presentation. We can think of sound as having many “ingredients.”

“I think of the sound mind as encompassing how we think, how we move, how we sense, and how we feel,” Kraus said. We live in a “visually dominated world,” but for hearing people, sound plays an important role in language, music, rhythm, and how we perceive the world.

One of the slides from Kraus’s presentation. The human auditory system involves not just the ears but also several regions of the brain. The “hearing brain” engages movement, cognition, and emotions along with interpreting direct sensory input from all senses.

Kraus discussed the auditory system and how much of what we think of as hearing takes place in the brain. We can think of sound as signals outside the head and electricity as signals inside the head (neural processing). When those two merge, learning occurs, and we can make sound-to-meaning connections.

Another slide from Kraus’s presentation. In an experiment, teaching rabbits to associate a sound with meaning (in this case, more carrots) changed patterns of neuron firing in the auditory cortex, even in individual neurons. “Same sound, same neuron, and yet the neuron responded differently… because now there’s a sound-to-meaning connection,” Kraus said.

Despite how sensitive our neurons and brains are to sound, things can get lost in translation. Kraus studies how conditions like concussions and hearing loss can adversely affect auditory processing. Even among healthy brains, we all hear and interpret sounds differently. People have unique “sonic fingerprints” that are relatively stable over time within an individual brain but differ between people. These patterns of sound recognition are apparent when scientists record brain responses to music or other sounds.

“One of the biological measures that we have been using in human and in animal models,” Kraus said, is FFR (frequency following response) to speech. FFR-to-speech can be used to analyze an individual’s auditory processing system. It also allows scientists to convert brain responses back into sound waves. “The sound wave and the brainwave resemble each other, which is just remarkable.”

One of Kraus’s slides. Technology called frequency following response (FFR) can be used to convert brain waves back into original sound (like a song).

This technology helps reveal just how attuned our brains are to sound. When we hear a song, our brain waves respond to everything from the beat to the melody. Those brain waves are so specific to that particular song or sound that when scientists convert the brain waves back into sound, the resulting music is still recognizable.

When scientists try this on people who have experienced a concussion, for instance, the recreated music can sound different or garbled. Experiments that compare healthy and unhealthy brains can help reveal what concussions do to the brain and our ability to interpret sound. But not everything that affects auditory processing is bad.

Musical training is famously good for the brain, and experiments done by Kraus and other scientists support that conclusion. “The musician signature—something that develops over time—” has specific patterns, and it can enhance certain components of auditory processing over time. Making music might also improve language skills. “The music and language signatures really overlap,” Kraus said, “which is why making music is so good for strengthening our sound mind.” Kids who can synchronize to a beat, for example, tend to have better language skills according to some of the experiments Kraus has been involved with.

Musicians are also, on average, better at processing sound in noisy environments. Musicians respond well in quiet and noisy environments. Non-musicians, on the other hand, respond well in quiet environments, but that response “really breaks down” in noisy ones.

Interestingly, “Making music has a lifelong impact. Making music in early life can strengthen the sound mind when one is seventy or eighty years old.”

A slide from Kraus’s presentation. Musicians tend to be better at processing sounds in noisy environments.

Exercise, too, can improve auditory processing. “Elite division 1 athletes have especially quiet brains” with less neural noise. That’s a good thing; it lets incoming information “stand out more.”

In experiments, healthy athletes also have a more consistent response over time across multiple trials, especially women.

These benefits aren’t limited to elite athletes, though. According to Kraus, “Being fit and flexible is one of the best things you can do for your brain,” Kraus said.

Kraus and her team have a regularly updated website about their work. For those who want to learn more about their research, they have a short video about their research approach and an online lecture Kraus gave with the Kennedy Center.

Nina Kraus with a piano. “Science is a deeply human endeavor,” she said, “and I think we often forget that. It’s made by people.”
Photo courtesy of Kraus and colleague Jenna Cunningham, Ph.D.
Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Do Snakes Have Tails? and Other Slithery Questions

Dhruv Rungta, a member of the Wild Ones club, with a ring-necked snake during a herpetology walk with Dr. Nicki Cagle in the Duke Forest.
Upper left: Dr. Nicki Cagle holding a ring-necked snake. Photo by Montana Lee, another Wild Ones member.

On a sunny Friday in September, Dr. Nicki Cagle led a herpetology walk in the Duke Forest with the Wild Ones. The Wild Ones is an undergraduate club focused on increasing appreciation for the natural world through professor-led outings. Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians.

Dr. Cagle is a senior lecturer in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke and the Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Along with teaching courses on environmental education and natural history, she is also the science advisor for a citizen science project focused on reptiles and amphibians, or herpetofauna, in the Duke Forest. Volunteers monitor predetermined sites in the Duke Forest and collect data on the reptiles and amphibians they find.

“We get a sense of abundance, seasonality… and how the landscape is affecting what we’re seeing,” Dr. Cagle says. There is evidence that herp populations in the Duke Forest and elsewhere are decreasing.

Dr. Nicki Cagle flipping over a cover board with members of the Wild Ones. The cover boards are used to monitor reptiles and amphibians for a citizen science project in the Duke Forest.

The project relies on transects, “a sampling design… where you have a sampling spot at various intervals” along a line of a predetermined length. In this case, the sampling spots are “traps” meant to attract reptiles and amphibians without harming them. Each site has a large board lying on the ground. “Different herps are more likely to be found under different objects,” Dr. Cagle explains, so the project uses both wooden and metal cover boards.

But why would snakes and other herps want to hide under cover boards, anyway? Reptiles and amphibians are “cold-blooded” animals, or ectotherms. They can’t regulate their own body temperature, so they have to rely on their environment for thermoregulation. Snakes might sun themselves on a rock on cold days, for instance, or hide under a conveniently placed wooden board to escape the heat.

Salamanders that use the cover boards might be attracted to the moist environment, while “snakes will tend to go under cover boards either to hide — like if they’re about to molt and they’re more vulnerable — to look for prey, or just to maintain the proper temperature,” Dr. Cagle says.

Citizen scientists typically check the boards once a week and not more than twice a week. Volunteers have to avoid checking the traps too often because of a phenomenon called “trap shyness,” where animals might start avoiding the traps because they’ve learned to associate them with pesky humans flipping the boards over and exposing their otherwise cozy resting places. By checking the traps less frequently, scientists can reduce the likelihood of that and minimize disturbance to the animals they’re studying.

The first snake we saw was a redbelly snake (Storeria occipitomaculata), dark above with a pink stomach.

Dr. Cagle gave the Wild Ones a behind-the-scenes tour of some of the cover boards. Using a special, hooked tool conveniently stashed in a PVC pipe next to the first cover board, we flipped each board over and looked carefully underneath it for slithery movements. We didn’t find any under the first several cover boards.

But then, under a large sheet of metal, we saw a tiny snake squirming around in the leaf litter. There was a collective intake of breath and exclamations of “snake!”

Dr. Cagle captured it and held it carefully in her hands. Snakes, especially snakes as young as this one, can be all too easily crushed. We gathered around to look more closely at the baby snake, a species with the adorable name “worm snake.” It was dark above with a strikingly pink underside. The pink belly is a key field mark of worm snakes. Earth snakes are also found around here and look similar, but they tend to have tan bellies.

After a minute or two, the worm snake made a successful bid for freedom and wriggled back under the board, disappearing from sight almost immediately.

Crossing over a dry “intermittent stream,” which Dr. Cagle describes as “the running-water equivalent of a vernal pool.” A vernal pool is a temporary wetland that is dry for much of the year.

Some of the cover boards revealed other animals as well. We found a caterpillar chrysalis attached to one and several holes — probably made by small mammals — under another.

Whatever made the holes, we can safely assume it wasn’t a snake. According to Dr. Cagle, the term “snakehole” is misleading. Most snakes don’t make their own holes, though some of them do use existing holes made by other animals. One exception is the bull snake, which is known for digging.

We found a young five-lined skink sunning itself on top of one of the metal cover boards. (Thermoregulation!) Juvenile five-lined skinks are colloquially known as blue-tailed skinks, but the name is somewhat misleading — the adults don’t have blue tails at all.

The snakes we were looking for, meanwhile, were often elusive. Some vanished under the leaf litter before we could catch them. Sometimes it was hard to tell whether we were even looking at a snake at all.

“What are you?” Dr. Cagle muttered at one point, crouching down to get a better look at what was either a stick-esque snake or a snake-esque stick. “Are you an animal? Or are you just a wet something?” (Just a wet something, it turned out.)

The Duke Forest is a valuable community resource with a complicated history. “We know that slavery was practiced on at least four properties” in the Duke Forest, Dr. Cagle says, and the forest is located on the traditional hunting grounds of several indigenous peoples. Today, the Duke Forest is used for research, recreation, timber management, and wildlife management and conservation.

Later on, we found at least three young ring-necked snakes (Diadophis punctatus) under different cover boards. One of them was particularly cooperative, so we passed it around the group. (“All snakes can bite,” Dr. Cagle reminded us, but “some have the tendency to bite less,” and this species “has the tendency not to bite.”) Its small, lithe body was surprisingly strong. The little snake wrapped tightly around one of my fingers and seemed content to chill there. A living, breathing, reptilian ring. That was definitely a highlight of my day.

The faint, dark line on this ring-necked snake’s underside (on the bottom of the loop) is the anal vent. Everything below that point (farther from the head) is considered the official tail of a snake.

If you’ve ever wondered if snakes have tails, the answer is yes. The official cut-off point, Dr. Cagle says, is the anal vent. Everything below that is tail. In between flipping over cover boards and admiring young snakes, we learned about other herps. Near the beginning of our walk, someone asked what the difference is between a newt and a salamander.

“A newt is a type of salamander,” Dr. Cagle says, “but newts have an unusual life cycle where they spend part of their life cycle on land… and that is called their eft phase.” As adults, they return to the water to breed.

We learned that copperheads “tend to be fatter-bodied for their length” and that spotted salamanders cross forest roads in large numbers on warm, rainy nights in early spring when they return to wetlands to breed.

Students holding a ring-necked snake. Above: Kelsey Goldwein (left), Gurnoor Majhail (one of the co-presidents of the Wild Ones), and Simran Sokhi (background on right). Below: Emily Courson (left) and Barron Brothers.

Perhaps the most interesting herp fact of the day came near the end of our walk when one of the students asked how you can tell the sex of a snake. Apparently there are two ways. You can measure a snake’s tail (males usually have longer tails), or you can insert a metal probe, blunted at the end, into a snake’s anal vent. Scientists can determine the sex of the snake by how deep the probe goes. It goes farther into the anal vent if the snake is a male. Why is that? Because male snakes have hemipenes — not two penises, exactly, but “an analogous structure that allows the probe to slide between the two and go farther” than it would in a female snake. The more you know…

Looking for snakes on a herpetology outing with Dr. Cagle and the Wild Ones. Photograph by Gurnoor Majhail.

Disclaimer: Handling wild snakes may result in snake bites. It can also be stressful to the snakes. Furthermore, some snakes in this area are venomous, and it’s probably best to familiarize yourself with those before getting close to snakes rather than afterward. Snakes are amazing, but please observe wildlife safely and responsibly.

Bonus snake! I saw this adorable fellow on the Duke Campus and thought it was an earthworm at first. Dr. Cagle thinks it might be a rough earth snake. I did not check to see if it had a tan belly.
Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

What Are Lichens, and Why Does Duke Have 160,000 of Them?

Saxicolous lichens (lichens that grow on stones) from the Namib Desert, and finger lichen, Dactylina arctica (bottom left insert), common in the Arctic, on display in Dr. Jolanta Miadlikowska’s office. The orange color on some of the lichen comes from metabolites, or secondary chemicals produced by different lichen species. The finger lichen is hollow.

Lichens are everywhere—grayish-green patches on tree bark on the Duke campus, rough orange crusts on desert rocks, even in the Antarctic tundra. They are “pioneer species,” often the first living things to return to barren, desolate places after an extreme disturbance like a lava flow. They can withstand extreme conditions and survive where nearly nothing else can. But what exactly are lichens, and why does Duke have 160,000 of them in little envelopes? I reached out to Dr. Jolanta Miadlikowska and Dr. Scott LaGreca, two lichen researchers at Duke, to learn more.

Dr. Jolanta Miadlikowska looking at lichen specimens under a dissecting microscope. The pale, stringy lichen on the brown bag is whiteworm lichen (Thamnolia vermicularis), used to make “snow tea” in parts of China.

According to Miadlikowska, a senior researcher, lab manager, and lichenologist in the Lutzoni Lab (and one of the Instructors B for the Bio201 Gateway course) at Duke, lichens are “obligate symbiotic associations,” meaning they are composed of two or more organisms that need each other. All lichens represent a symbiotic relationship between a fungus (the “mycobiont”) and either an alga or a cyanobacterium or both (the “photobiont”). They aren’t just cohabiting; they rely on each other for survival. The mycobiont builds the thallus, which gives lichen its structure. The photobiont, on the other hand, isn’t visible—but it is important: it provides “food” for the lichen and can sometimes affect the lichen’s color. The name of a lichen species refers to its fungal partner, whereas the photobiont has its own name.

Lichen viewed through a dissecting microscope. The black speckles visible on some of the orange lichen lobes are a “lichenicolous” fungus that can grow on top of lichen. There are also “endolichenic fungi… very complex fungal communities that live inside lichen,” Miadlikowska says. “We don’t see them, but they are there. And they are very interesting.”

Unlike plants, fungi can’t perform photosynthesis, so they have to find other ways to feed themselves. Many fungi, like mushrooms and bread mold, are saprotrophs, meaning they get nutrients from organic matter in their environment. (The word “saprotroph” comes from Greek and literally means “rotten nourishment.”) But the fungi in lichens, Miadlikowska says, “found another way of getting the sugar—because it’s all about the sugar—by associating with an organism that can do photosynthesis.” More often than not, that organism is a type of green algae, but it can also be a photosynthetic bacterium (cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae). It is still unclear how the mycobiont finds the matching photobiont if both partners are not dispersed together. Maybe the fungal spores (very small fungal reproductive unit) “will just sit and wait” until the right photobiont partner comes along. (How romantic.) Some mycobionts are specialists that “can only associate with a few or a single partner—a ‘species’ of Nostoc [a cyanobacterium; we still don’t know how many species of symbiotic and free-living Nostoc are out there and how to recognize them], for example,” but many are generalists with more flexible preferences. 

Two species of foliose (leaf-like) lichens from the genus Peltigera. In the species on the left (P. canina), the only photobiont is a cyanobacterium from the genus Nostoc, making it an example of bi-membered symbiosis. In the species on the right (P. aphthosa), on the other hand, the primary photobiont is a green alga (which is why the thallus is so green when wet). In this case, Nostoc is a secondary photobiont contained only in the cephalodia—the dark, wart-like structures on the surface. With two photobionts plus the mycobiont, this is an example of tri-membered symbiosis.

Lichens are classified based on their overall thallus shape. They can be foliose (leaf-like), fruticose (shrubby), or crustose (forming a crust on rocks or other surfaces). Lichens that grow on trees are epiphytic, while those that live on rocks are saxicolous; lichens that live on top of mosses are muscicolous, and ground-dwelling lichens are terricolous. Much of Miadlikowska’s research is on a group of cyanolichens (lichens with cyanobacteria partners) from the genus Peltigera. She works on the systematics and evolution of this group using morphology-, anatomy-, and chemistry-based methods and molecular phylogenetic tools. She is also part of a team exploring biodiversity, ecological rules, and biogeographical patterns in cryptic fungal communities associated with lichens and plants (endolichenic and endophytic fungi). She has been involved in multiple ongoing NSF-funded projects and also helping graduate students Ian, Carlos, Shannon, and Diego in their dissertation research. She spent last summer collecting lichens with Carlos and Shannon and collaborators in Alberta, Canada and Alaska. If you walk in the sub basement of the Bio Sciences building where Bio201 and Bio202 labs are located, check out the amazing photos of lichens (taken by Thomas Barlow, former Duke undergraduate) displayed along the walls! Notice Peltigera species, including some new to science, described by the Duke lichen team.

Lichens have value beyond the realm of research, too. “In traditional medicine, lichens have a lot of use,” Miadlikowska says. Aside from medicinal uses, they have also been used to dye fabric and kill wolves. Some are edible. Miadlikowska herself has eaten them several times. She had salad in China that was made with leafy lichens (the taste, she says, came mostly from soy sauce and rice vinegar, but “the texture was coming from the lichen.”). In Quebec, she drank tea made with native plants and lichens, and in Scandinavia, she tried candied Cetraria islandica lichen (she mostly tasted the sugar and a bit of bitterness, but once again, the lichen’s texture was apparent).

In today’s changing world, lichens have another use as well, as “bioindicators to monitor the quality of the air.” Most lichens can’t tolerate air pollution, which is why “in big cities… when you look at the trees, there are almost no lichens. The bark is just naked.” Lichen-covered trees, then, can be a very good sign, though the type of lichen matters, too. “The most sensitive lichens are the shrubby ones… like Usnea,” Miadlikowska says. Some lichens, on the other hand, “are able to survive in anthropogenic places, and they just take over.” Even on “artificial substrates like concrete, you often see lichens.” Along with being very sensitive to poor air quality, lichens also accumulate pollutants, which makes them useful for monitoring deposition of metals and radioactive materials in the environment.

Dr. Scott LaGreca with some of the 160,000 lichen specimens in Duke’s herbarium.

LaGreca, like Miadlikoska, is a lichenologist. His research primarily concerns systematics, evolution and chemistry of the genus Ramalina. He’s particularly interested in “species-level relationships.” While he specializes in lichens now, LaGreca was a botany major in college. He’d always been interested in plants, in part because they’re so different from animals—a whole different “way of being,” as he puts it. He used to take himself on botany walks in high school, and he never lost his passion for learning the names of different species. “Everything has a name,” he says. “Everything out there has a name.” Those names aren’t always well-known. “Some people are plant-blind, as they call it…. They don’t know maples from oaks.” In college he also became interested in other organisms traditionally studied by botanists—like fungi. When he took a class on fungi, he became intrigued by lichens he saw on field trips. His professor was more interested in mushrooms, but LaGreca wanted to learn more, so he specialized in lichens during grad school at Duke, and now lichens are central to his job. He researches them, offers help with identification to other scientists, and is the collections manager for the lichens in the W.L. and C.F. Culberson Lichen Herbarium—all 160,000 of them.

The Duke Herbarium was founded in 1921 by Dr. Hugo Blomquist. It contains more than 825,000 specimens of vascular and nonvascular plants, algae, fungi, and, of course, lichens. Some of those specimens are “type” specimens, meaning they represent species new to science. A type specimen essentially becomes the prototype for its species and “the ultimate arbiter of whether something is species X or not.” But how are lichens identified, anyway?

Lichenologists can consider morphology, habitat, and other traits, but thanks to Dr. Chicita Culberson, who was a chemist and adjunct professor at Duke before her retirement, they have another crucial tool available as well. Culbertson created a game-changing technique to identify lichens using their chemicals, or metabolites, which are often species-specific and thus diagnostic for identification purposes. That technique, still used over fifty years later, is a form of thin-layer chromatography. The process, as LaGreca explains, involves putting extracts from lichen specimens—both the specimens you’re trying to identify and “controls,” or known samples of probable species matches—on silica-backed glass plates. The plates are then immersed in solvents, and the chemicals in the lichens travel up the paper. After the plates have dried, you can look at them under UV light to see if any spots are fluorescing. Then you spray the plates with acid and “bake it for a couple hours.” By the end of the process, the spots of lichen chemicals should be visible even without UV light. If a lichen sample has traveled the same distance up the paper as the control specimen, and if it has a similar color, it’s a match. If not, you can repeat the process with other possible matches until you establish your specimen’s chemistry and, from there, its identity. Culberson’s method helped standardize lichen identification. Her husband also worked with lichens and was a director of the Duke Gardens.

Thin-layer chromatography plates in Dr. LaGreca’s office. The technique, created by Dr. Chicita Culberson, helps scientists identify lichens by comparing their chemical composition to samples of known identity. Each plate was spotted with extracts from different lichen specimens, and then each was immersed in a different solvent, after which the chemicals in the extracts travel up the plate . Each lichen chemical travels a characteristic distance (called the “Rf value”) in each solvent. Here, the sample in column 1 on the rightmost panel matches the control sample in column 2 in terms of distance traveled up the page, indicating that they’re the same species. The sample in column 4, on the other hand, didn’t travel as far as the one in column 5 and has a different color. Therefore, those chemicals (and species) do not match.

LaGreca shows me a workroom devoted to organisms that are cryptogamic, a word meaning “hidden gametes, or hidden sex.” It’s a catch-all term for non-flowering organisms that “zoologists didn’t want to study,” like non-flowering plants, algae, and fungi. It’s here that new lichen samples are processed. The walls of the workroom are adorned with brightly colored lichen posters, plus an ominous sign warning that “Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free puppy.” Tucked away on a shelf, hiding between binders of official-looking documents, is a thin science fiction novel called “Trouble with Lichen” by John Wyndham.

The Culberson Lichen Herbarium itself is a large room lined with rows of cabinets filled with stacks upon stacks of folders and boxes of meticulously organized lichen samples. A few shelves are devoted to lichen-themed books with titles like Lichens De France and Natural History of the Danish Lichens.

Each lichen specimen is stored in an archival (acid-free) paper packet, with a label that says who collected it, where, and on what date. (“They’re very forgiving,” says LaGreca. “You can put them in a paper bag in the field, and then prepare the specimen and its label years later.”) Each voucher is “a record of a particular species growing in a particular place at a particular time.” Information about each specimen is also uploaded to an online database, which makes Duke’s collection widely accessible. Sometimes, scientists from other institutions find themselves in need of physical specimens. They’re in luck, because Duke’s lichen collection is “like a library.” The herbarium fields loan requests and trades samples with herbaria at museums and universities across the globe. (“It’s kind of like exchanging Christmas presents,” says LaGreca. “The herbarium community is a very generous community.”)

Duke’s lichen collection functions like a library in some ways, loaning specimens to other scientists and trading specimens with institutions around the world.

Meticulous records of species, whether in databases of lichens or birds or “pickled fish,” are invaluable. They’re useful for investigating trends over time, like tracking the spread of invasive species or changes in species’ geographic distributions due to climate change. For example, some lichen species that were historically recorded on high peaks in North Carolina and elsewhere are “no longer there” thanks to global warming—mountain summits aren’t as cold as they used to be. Similarly, Henry David Thoreau collected flowering plants at Walden Pond more than 150 years ago, and his samples are still providing valuable information. By comparing them to present-day plants in the same location, scientists can see that flowering times have shifted earlier due to global warming. So why does Duke have tens of thousands of dried lichen samples? “It comes down to the reproducibility of science,” LaGreca says. “A big part of the scientific method is being able to reproduce another researcher’s results by following their methodology. By depositing voucher specimens generated from research projects in herbaria like ours, future workers can verify the results” of such research projects. For example, scientists at other institutions will sometimes borrow Duke’s herbarium specimens to verify that “the species identification is what the label says it is.” Online databases and physical species collections like the herbarium at Duke aren’t just useful for scientists today. They’re preserving data that will still be valuable hundreds of years from now.

Vernal, Ephemeral, Spring Beauty by Any Other Name

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”

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?

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

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