Duke Research Blog

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

Author: Vanessa Moss

Hamlet is Everywhere. To Cite, or Not to Cite?

Some stories are too good to forget. With almost formulaic accuracy, elements from classic narratives are constantly being reused and retained in our cultural consciousness, to the extent that a room of people who’ve never read Romeo and Juliet could probably still piece out its major plot points. But when stories are so pervasive, how can we tell what’s original and what’s Shakespeare with a facelift?

This summer, three Duke undergraduate students in the Data+ summer research program built a computer program to find reused stories.

“We’re looking for invisible adaptations, or appropriations, of stories where there are underlying themes or the messages remain the same,” explains Elise Xia, a sophomore in mechanical engineering. “The goal of our project was to create a model where we could take one of these original stories, get data from it, and find other stories in literature, film, TV that are adaptations.”

The Lion King for example, is a well-known appropriation of Hamlet. The savannahs of Africa are a far cry from Denmark, and “Simba” bears no etymologic resemblance to “Hamlet”, yet they’re fundamentally the same story: A power-hungry uncle kills the king and ousts the heir to the throne, only for an eventually cataclysmic return of the prince. In an alternate ending for the film, Disney directors even considered quoting Hamlet.

“The only difference is that there’s no incest in The Lion King,” jokes Mikaela Johnson, an English and religious studies major and member of the Invisible Adaptations team.

With Hamlet as their model text, the team used a Natural Language Processing system to turn words into data points and compare other movie scripts and novels to the original play.

But the students had to strike a balance between the more surficial yet comprehensive analysis of computers (comparing place names, character names, and direct quotes) with the deeper textual analysis that humans provide.

So, they developed another branch of analysis: After sifting through about 30,000 scholarly texts on Hamlet to identify major themes — monarchy, death, ghost, power, revenge, uncle, etc. – their computer program screened Wikipedia’s database for those key words to identify new adaptations. After comparing the titles found from both primary and secondary sources, they had their final list of Hamlet adaptations.

“What we really tried to do was break down what a story is and how humans understand stories, and then try to translate that into a way a computer can do it,” says Nikhil Kaul, rising junior in computer science and philosophy. “And in a sense, it’s impossible.”

Finding the threshold between a unique story and derivative stories could have serious implications for copyright law and intellectual property in the future. But Grant Glass, UNC graduate student of English and comparative literature and the project manager of this study, believes that the real purpose of the research is to understand the context of each story.

“Appropriating without recognition removes the historical context of how that story was made,” Glass explains. Often, problematic facets of the story are too deeply ingrained to coat over with fresh literary paint: “All of the ugliness of text shouldn’t be capable of being whitewashed – They are compelling stories, but they’re problematic. We owe past baggage to be understood.”

Adaptations include small hat-tips to their original source; quoting the original or using character names. But appropriations of works do nothing to signal their source to their audience, which is why the Data+ team’s thematic analysis of Wikipedia pages was vital in getting a comprehensive list of previously unrecognized adaptations.

“A good adaptation would subvert expectations of the original text,” Glass says. Seth Rogan’s animated comedy, Sausage Party, one of the more surprising movie titles the students’ program found, does just that. “It’s a really vulgar, pretty funny movie,” Kaul explains. “It’s very existential and meta and has a lot of death at the end of it, much like Hamlet does. So, the program picked up on those similarities.”

 Without this new program, the unexpected resemblance could’ve gone unnoticed by literary academia – and whether or not Seth Rogan intended to parallel a grocery store to the Danish royal court, it undoubtedly spins a reader’s expectation of Hamlet on its head.

By Vanessa Moss

Science in haiku: // Interdisciplinary // Student poetry

On Friday, August 2, ten weeks of research by Data+ and Code+ students wrapped up with a poster session in Gross Hall where they flaunted their newly created posters, websites and apps. But they weren’t expecting to flaunt their poetry skills, too! 

Data+ is one of the Rhodes Information Initiative programs at Duke. This summer, 83 students addressed 27 projects addressing issues in health, public policy, environment and energy, history, culture, and more. The Duke Research Blog thought we ought to test these interdisciplinary students’ mettle with a challenge: Transforming research into haiku.

Which haiku is your
favorite? See all of their
finished work below!

Eric Zhang (group members Xiaoqiao Xing and Micalyn Struble not pictured) in “Neuroscience in the Courtroom”
Maria Henriquez and Jake Sumner on “Using Machine Learning to Predict Lower Extremity Musculoskeletal Injury Risk for Student Athletes”
Samantha Miezio, Ellis Ackerman, and Rodrigo Aruajo in “Durham Evictions: A snapshot of costs, locations, and impacts”
Nikhil Kaul, Elise Xia, and Mikaela Johnson on “Invisible Adaptations”
Karen Jin, Katherine Cottrell, and Vincent Wang in “Data-driven approaches to illuminate the responses of lakes to multiple stressors”.

By Vanessa Moss

Global Health is Local Too

DGHI interns, left to right: Gabrielle Zegers (C’19), Ashley Wilson (C’20), and Rachel Baber (C’20).

When Duke senior Rachel Baber began her freshman year, she was under the impression that legitimate research had to involve a white lab coat and a microscope.

But this summer she worked to study human health without a pipette in sight, instead spending her time in a computer lab, which was empty besides her and two fellow interns. A few yards away from her shared workspace, blue metal double doors swing into a linoleum-floored cafeteria.

As she sits at a table near the entrance, dozens of men and women walk past in ones and twos, some with oil smeared on their jeans and others pushing carts with cleaning supplies, talking with one another and nodding to acknowledge Baber.

She’s been working all summer at the Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers, Inc., better known as TROSA, and everyone passing is a resident.

TROSA is acclaimed for their whole-person approach to substance-abuse recovery and trauma resiliency, with multi-year programming that provides treatment, educational opportunities, and vocational training for their clients. TROSA has been providing services for 25 years and, like most non-profit organizations, they have a running list of projects with limited number of staff hours to commit to them.

“It’s not that they’re back-burner issues,” explains Karen Kelley, the Chief Program Officer at TROSA. “It’s just that we don’t have enough front burners.”

This summer, Duke’s undergraduates stepped in to provide a little more stove space for TROSA’s needs.

Duke’s Global Health Institute (DGHI) requires all students to spend one summer in a research training program, which associate professor Sumi Ariely believes is a vital opportunity for students to “work deeply with a community partner and their vision, and to help disparities or inequities in their community.”

Program options range from looking at health impacts of gold mining in Ghana to screening for glaucoma in Honduras, but 2019 was DGHI’s first season offering TROSA as a research site, opening new avenues for students to give back to the Durham community.

“We have a responsibility to our neighbors,” Ariely says. “‘Global is Local’ holds two meanings. As a geographic term, it focuses on the Triangle or Durham area. It also holds philosophical value. We in high-resource areas don’t have all the answers, and entering global arenas flaunting our ‘solutions’ is just hubris,” she adds. “Working to solve pockets of deep inequalities in our state and our country allows for multi-directional learning.  Local is Global acknowledges that we are all fundamentally the same and in it together.”

Duke University and TROSA have had a long history of collaboration. TROSA moving services are a common sight on Duke’s campus, and Duke Health also contracts with providers who work on-site at TROSA to give primary, behavioral health, and psychological care for clients.

Having three DGHI interns allowed TROSA to begin answering questions that they’d long been speculating about: How does cigarette smoking impact the community as a rehabilitation center? How could the program integrate sustainable practices like recycling and composting on an institutional scale? How accessible are the classes that TROSA offers residents and how do they affect resident growth and recovery?

 Baber spent her time tackling the last question, first classifying the full curriculum of TROSA’s courses into three major categories: Therapeutic, vocational, and educational. Looking at past courses that residents had taken, she began the process of setting course standards for residents – what number of therapeutic courses are expected to be completed at nine months into the program compared to 15 months, for example.

This number-crunching project also provided an opportunity for the administration to reflect on course access. Baber was able to find some patterns in curriculum, like how most residents register for more classes as they advance through the program, and how female residents often register for more therapeutic courses than men.

“I’d love to qualitatively look at residents’ impressions of the classes,” Baber explains. “Some people really enjoy a certain category of courses, while others benefit more from working on a job and dealing with problems as they come up.” Baber envisions that question, along with identifying which classes have the highest graduation rate and asking why that is, as possible projects for future interns.

Rebecca Graves, TROSA’s Director of Clinical Operations, sees data and demographic review like this as a critical means of assessment and improvement. “As a nonprofit, we use a quarterly review to pay close attention to demographic changes. If 80% of applicants were female and only 20% of our population was women, we’d need to review — What’s keeping people out of the door? Are we inhibitive in some way?”

After working with often-incomplete data, Baber and fellow interns Ashley Wilson (C’20) and Gabrielle Zegers (C’19) were able to realize what information is missing, refine what TROSA should keep collecting, and find what they could from the data they did have.

“Check them off as huge successes,” Graves reiterates. “They’re making marked achievements, finding new data, extrapolating new information, and creating new policies here. They all took ownership as self-motivated researchers, and my dream is that they’d all stay.”

Beyond working on their assigned projects, the three students were eager to invest themselves in the TROSA community, attending a dance with new women in the program, volunteering at the TROSA thrift store on weekends, volunteering at the medical center, and helping with GED tutoring each Tuesday evening.

“Getting to learn from residents about their recovery and what they’re doing to help themselves has been the best part of this job,” Baber says. In global health, students often face large and looming statistics surrounding the opioid epidemic. “It’s easy to dehumanize that problem. It’s easy in global health to think ‘Oh, these numbers are so huge. I’ll never make a difference.’ But talking to individuals personalizes the matter, it makes you realize that positive change can happen.”


For more information about TROSA, visit: www.trosainc.org


By Vanessa Moss

An Undergraduate Student Grapples with Morality

Existential speculations are normal part of college, and parents shouldn’t worry too much if their child calls home freshman year to speculate on the writings of Immanuel Kant or Sigmund Freud with them. It’s all part of growing up.

But for Shenyang Huang (C’20), these existential questions aren’t just pastimes: They’re work.

As a neuroscience major and a participant in Duke’s Summer Neuroscience Program, Huang has spent eight weeks of his summer in the Imagination and Modal Cognition laboratory researching under Dr. Felipe De Brigard, a three-in-one professor of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. Huang has been working at the intersection of those fields with PhD student Matt Stanley to explore some hefty questions about morality and memory.

Shenyang Huang is a rising senior Neuroscience student at Duke. (Image provided by Huang)

The team is grappling with our past mistakes, and how they’ve impacted who we are today. Specifically, how do we remember moments when we behaved immorally? And how do those moments shape the way we think of ourselves?

These questions have been approached from various angles in different studies. One such study, published in 2016 by Maryam Kouchaki and Frencesca Gino, claims that “Memories of unethical actions become obfuscated over time.” Or rather, we forget the bad things we’ve done in the past. According to their study, it’s a self-preservation method for our current concepts of self-worth and moral uprightness.

“I was surprised when I read the Kouchaki and Gino study,” Huang explains. “They claim that people try to forget the bad things they’d done, but that doesn’t feel right. In my life, it’s not right.”

In their two-part study, Stanley and Huang surveyed nearly 300 online participants about these moments of moral failure. They reported memories ranging from slightly immoral events, like petty thievery and cheating on small assignments, to highly immoral incidences, like abusing animals or cheating on significant others. Through questionnaires, the team measured the severity of each incident, how vividly the person recollected the experience, how often the memory would bubble to consciousness on its own, how they emotionally responded to remembering, and how central each event was to the subject’s life.

Their preliminary results resonate more with Huang: Highly immoral actions were recalled more vividly than milder transgressions, and they were generally considered more central in subjects’ life narratives.

“Moral memories are central to one’s sense of self,” Huang says, “and the other paper didn’t discuss centrality in one’s life at all.”

Felipe DeBrigard is an assistant professor of philosophy and a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. (Les Todd, Duke Photo)

Though contradictory to what Kouchaki and Gino found, the findings have a firm foundation in current psychology literature, De Brigard says. “There are a lot of studies backing the contrary [to Kouchaki and Gino], including research on criminal offenses. People who have committed crimes of passion are known to suffer from a kind of moral PTSD — they constantly relive the event.”

Huang’s study is only one branch of research in a comprehensive analysis of morality and memory De Brigard is exploring now, with the help from the six graduate and eight undergraduate students operating out of his lab.

“Working in a lab with philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists, you see different approaches to the same overarching problem,” Huang says. And as he begins to consider PhD programs in neuroscience, this interdisciplinary exposure is a huge asset.

“It’s helpful and inspiring — I can’t take every class, but I can sit and overhear conversations in the lab about philosophy or psychology and learn from it. It widens my perspective.”


by Vanessa Moss

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