Duke Research Blog

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

Author: Will Sheehan Page 1 of 2

Don’t Drink the Tap

Have you ever questioned the quality of the water you drink every day? Or worried that cooking with tap water might be dangerous? For most of us, the answer to these questions is probably no. However, students from a Bass Connections team at Duke say we may want to think otherwise.

Image result for image of water

From bottle refilling stations to the tap, drinking water is so habitual and commonplace that we often take it for granted. Only in moments of crisis do we start worrying about what’s in the water we drink daily. The reality is that safe drinking water isn’t accessible for a lot of people.

Image result for pink hog farm water
Pig waste discoloring lagoon water

Images like this hog farm motivated the Bass Connections project team DECIPHER to take a closer look at the quality of water in North Carolina. On April 16 they presented their concerning findings from three case studies looking at lead contamination, coal ash impoundments, and aging infrastructure at the Motorco Music Hall.

Motorco in Durham. The talk was inside, though.

Nadratun Chowdhury, a Ph.D. student in Civil and Environmental Engineering, investigated lead contamination in water. Lead is an abundant and corrosion-resistant material, making it appealing for use in things like paint, batteries, faucets and pipes. While we’ve successfully removed lead from paint and gasoline, a lot of old water pipes in use today are still fashioned from lead. That’s not good – lead is very toxic and can leach into the water.

Just how toxic is it? Anything over a blood-lead level concentration of fifty parts per billion – fifty drops of water in a giant Olympic swimming pool – is considered dangerous. According to Duke graduate student Aaron Reuben, this much lead in one’s blood is correlated with downward social mobility, serious health concerns, diminished capacity to regulate thoughts and emotions, and hyperactivity. Lower income and minority areas are more at risk due to the higher likelihood of owning contaminated older homes.

Rupanjali Karthik, a Master of Laws student, conducted research on the intersection of water and aging infrastructure in Orange County. Breaks in water pipes are common and can result in serious consequences, like the loss of 9 million gallons of drinkable water. Sometimes it takes 8 or 9 months just to find the location of a broken pipe. In 2018, the UNC-Chapel Hill water main break caused a huge shortage on campus and at the medical center.

Excess fluoridation is also an issue caused by aging infrastructure. In February 2017, a combination of human and machine error caused an excessive fluoride concentration coming out of an Orange County Water Treatment Plant. People were advised not to use their water even to shower. A UNC basketball game had to move locations, and stores were completely swept of bottled water.

Another issue is that arsenic, a known carcinogen, is often used as the fluoridation agent. We definitely don’t want that in our drinking water. Fluoridation isn’t even that necessary these days when we have toothpaste and mouthwash that supports our dental health.

Tommy Lin, an undergraduate studying Chemistry and Computer Science, topped off the group’s presentation with findings surrounding coal ash in Belmont, NC. Coal ash, the residue after coal is burned in power plants, can pollute rivers and seep into ground water, affecting domestic wells of neighboring communities. This creates a cocktail of highly concentrated heavy metals and carcinogens. Drinking it can cause damage to your nervous system, cancer, and birth defects, among other things. Not so great.

The group’s presentation.

Forty-five plastic water bottles. That’s how much water it takes Laura, a Belmont resident, to cook her middle-sized family Thanksgiving. She knows that number because it’s been her family’s tradition the past three years. The Allen Plant Steam Station is a big culprit of polluting water with coal ash. Tons of homes nearby the station, like Laura’s, are told not to use the tap water. You can find these homes excessively stockpiled with cases on cases of plastic water bottles.

These issues aren’t that apparent to people unless they have been directly impacted. Lead, aging infrastructure, and coal ash all pose real threats but are also very invisible problems. Kathleen Burns, a Ph.D. student in English, notes that only in moments of crisis will people start to care, but by then it may be too late.

So, what can people do? Not much, according to the Bass Connections team. They noted that providing clean water is very much a structural issue which will require some complex steps to be solved. So, for now, you may want to go buy a Brita.

Will Sheehan
Post by Will Sheehan

Zapping Your Brain Is Dope

Emerging technology has created a new doping technique for athletic performance that is, as of now, perfectly legal.

Coined “neuro-doping,” this method sends electric current through one’s brain to facilitate quicker learning, enhanced muscular strength, and improved coordination. Use of this electronic stimulus has taken off in the sports world as a replacement for other doping methods banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Because it’s relatively new, WADA has yet to establish rules around neuro-doping. Plus, it’s virtually undetectable. Naturally, a lot of athletes are taking advantage of it.

Image result for doping

One specific method of neuro-doping is known as Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation (tDCS). It works by sending a non-invasive and painless electrical current through the brain for around three to 20 minutes, in order to excite the brain’s cortex, ultimately increasing neuroplasticity (Park). This can be done commercially via a headset like device for $200.

Image result for transcranial direct current stimulation headset
The Halo Sport

Weight lifters, sprinters, pitchers, and skiers are just some of many types of athletes who can benefit from tCDS. By practicing with these headphones on, new neural pathways are constructed to help their bodies achieve peak performance. Dr. Greg Appelbaum, director of Opti Lab and the Brain Stimulation Research Center, says it’s especially useful for athletes where technique and motor skills triumph — such as a sprinter getting out of the blocks or an Olympic ski jumper hanging in the air. Top-tier athletes are pushing that fine limit of what the human body can accomplish, but neuro-doping allows them to take it one step further.

Neuro-doping has other applications, too. Imagine insanely skilled Air Force pilots, surgeons with exceptionally nimble hands, or soldiers with perfect aim. tCDS is being used to make progress in things like Alzheimer’s and memory function because of its impact on cognitive functioning in the forms of increased attention span and memory. You could even learn the guitar faster.

In this sort of context, it’s a no brainer that neuro-doping should be taken advantage of. But how ethical is it in sports?

The precedent for WADA to ban a substance or technique has been based on meeting two of the following three criteria: (1) drugs or tools that likely enhance performance to secure a winning edge; (2) drugs or tools that place athletes’ health at risk; (3) any substances or techniques that ruin the “spirit-of-sport” (Park). Lots of research has shown tCDS is pretty legit. As for health risks, tCDS is still in the experimental stage, so not much can be said about its side effects. Ethically, it causes a lot of controversy.

Many issues come into play when thinking about allowing athletes to neuro-dope. Given its similarities with other popular drugs, tCDS could introduce unfair advantages. Furthermore, not everyone may have access to the technology, and not everyone may want to use it. However, it’s important to note that sports already have unfair advantages. Access to things like proper coaching and nutrition may not be a reality for everyone. Sports are just inherently competitive.

Back when baseball players doped, it was awesome to watch them crush balls out of the park. Reintroducing performance enhancement through tCDS could mean we start seeing mountain bikers launching insane air and world records being smattered. The human body could achieve newfound heights.

Are the benefits worth it? Does neuro-doping ruin the “spirit of the sport?” Regardless of these important questions, tCDS is a fascinating scientific discovery that could make a difference in this world. So, what do you think?

Will Sheehan
Post by Will Sheehan

Park, Cogent Social Sciences (2017), 3: 1360462
https://doi.org/10.1080/23311886.2017.1360462

We Can’t Regrow Limbs Like Deadpool, But This Creature Can

Try as we might, humans can’t regrow limbs. But losing your left leg isn’t such a problem for axolotls.

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Last Wednesday, Dr. Jessica Whited gave a fascinating talk about the importance of studying these strange little salamanders. Axolotls are capable of regenerating lost limbs so well that once a limb has fully grown back, you can’t tell the difference. No scars, no deformities. This genetic phenomenon serves as a powerful model for uncovering what mechanisms might be required for stimulating regeneration in humans.

The limb regeneration process goes through a few stages. Within hours after amputation, a wound epidermis forms around the injury. Next, a blastema grows – a big clump of cells that will be the basis for future growth. After that, a new limb just kind of sprouts out as you might imagine.

Image result for axolotl limb regeneration

So what gives the axolotl this seemingly magical ability? In attempt to answer that question, Whited’s lab looked at how the process starts – specifically at the creation of the blastema, something mammals do not form post-injury. They found that a single amputation causes an activation of progenitor cells throughout the axolotl’s body. Cells in the heart, liver, spinal cord, and contralateral limb all reenter circulation. Essentially an activation signal is sent throughout the whole body, indicating a systemic response to the injury rather than a local one.

Another question Whited sought to answer was if the same limb could regenerate multiple times. She had her student Donald Bryant carry out an experiment on a group of axolotls. Bryant would repeatedly amputate the same limb, letting it fully regrow for ten weeks between amputations. The results of the experiment show that after five amputations only 60 percent of the limb would regenerate. This percentage decreased with the number of amputations. So while axolotls may seem like they have super powers, they aren’t exactly invincible. They decline in their regenerative capabilities after repeated amputation.

Protein EYA2 PDB 3GEB.png

A key finding in this experiment was that repeated amputation led to a decrease in the EYA2 gene (Eyes Absent 2). This particular gene was deemed necessary for the blastema cells to progress through different growth checkpoints. It is required during the cell cycle “to execute decisions about whether the cells will continue to proliferate or not.” So while we don’t exactly know why, we do know that EYA2 plays an important role in the axolotl’s regenerative powers.

Although Whited and her team were able to uncover some important findings, several questions still linger. How is the activation of EYA2 induced following amputation? Why is repeated amputation linked to less EYA2 genes? If cells are poised to anticipate injury / DNA damage, why is it that repeated amputation leads to less regeneration?

Image result for deadpool baby hand

Humans and other mammals are not quite as lucky as the axolotl. Amputation is a relevant and serious issue, yet no biological solution has been devised. Thankfully, the research conducted around axolotl regenerative properties could provide us with knowledge on natural cellular reprogramming. Maybe one day we’ll be able to regrow limbs just like Deadpool.

Will Sheehan
Post by Will Sheehan

Energy Week Kicks Off With Electric Bikes, Buses and More

Global warming is becoming a bigger issue every day. But have no fear – “Energy Week at Duke’ is here! The 2018 event featured everything from electric mountain bikes to the world’s most fuel-efficient vehicle.

To kick off the exciting week, eBike Central and Proterra founder Dale Hill rolled up to the Chemistry parking lot on Sunday to inform everyone about today’s latest tech that’s helping our planet become more sustainable.

eBike Central had a whole fleet of electric bikes, or “e-bikes,” on display for people to try out: mountain bikes, commuter bikes, cargo bikes and more. I tried out one of the mountain bikes and took it off-roading up a steep hill nearby (which I never would’ve been able to make up without the electric assist). Then just to mess around I tried out the “Packster 40,” which was equipped with a child seat in front of the handle bars. It was surprisingly maneuverable and went really fast.

Instead of having a throttle, these e-bikes work through pedal assist, meaning each time you pedal, the bike outputs additional power to the wheels. You can select from five different modes, ranging from “eco” (a 25 percent additional assist), to “turbo” (an extra 300 percent). You can reach top speeds of around 28 miles per hour without even breaking a sweat. What was really cool about the Packster 40 was that it could shift gears at a standstill, and you could add up to three seats if you’ve got triplets!

As you can see, e-bikes are a very eco-friendly and convenient mode of transportation. They allow for longer, faster commutes while also helping out the environment. The mountain bikes are appealing to a variety of riders, whether they have bad knees or just want the energy to do more laps per session. The batteries take about 4-6 hours to get a charge that lasts for 70 miles. Just within this past year, the mile range has increased by 30 percent, and that number is only growing. As the price for e-bikes goes down and their functionality improves, we’ll be seeing a lot more of them around.

E-bikes aren’t the only cool electric vehicle rising in popularity. Dale Hill gave an inspiring a talk on how his company Proterra is bringing positive change to public transit through their electrically powered buses. (pic: Duke Today)

Proterra decided to get involved with public transit because buses are ideal candidates for implementing battery electric vehicles. Buses operate on continuous routes, so it’s easy to watch them and monitor their performance. They come back to a common maintenance facility, operated on by a professional staff. And obviously they drive tons of people around every day, so cutting out fossil fuels for such a heavily used service could make a large-scale impact in the long run.

As the world’s urban density rapidly rises, it simply isn’t feasible for everyone to have cars. More and more people will need to turn to alternative methods, like the bus. By 2030, the majority of the world’s vehicles will be battery electric. Good thing is, not only are they more reliable than diesel ones, but they require much less maintenance . On top of that, they save a ton of money on gas. So not only are electric buses sustainable, but also a smart investment! It makes sense why Boston, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Austin have already all committed to having 100 percent electric bus fleets within the coming decades. And Proterra is playing a huge part in that. They currently account for 60 percent of all electric bus sales.

Duke itself is hopping on this electric vehicle train – by 2024 students will be riding a fully battery powered C1 between East and West Campus. This is another one of the sustainable steps Duke has been taking towards carbon neutrality.

The Duke Electric Vehicles team was also at the kickoff event, showcasing their vehicle that holds the Guinness World Record for most fuel-efficient vehicle. They did a couple of laps around the parking lot in the “hydrogen fuel cell car,” which gets the equivalent of 14,573 miles per gallon.

I encourage you guys to do your part in living sustainably. Maybe you could buy an electric bike, and effortlessly leave your friends dumbfounded in the dust on your way to school.

Will SheehanPost by Will Sheehan

 

 

 

 

Looking at Cooking as a Science Experiment

From five-star restaurants to Grandma’s homemade cookies, cooking is an art that has transformed the way we taste food. But haven’t you ever wondered how cooking works? How in the world did people discover how to make Dipping Dots or Jell-O?

Patrick Charbonneau is an Associate Professor of Chemistry here at Duke and last Friday he gave a delicious talk about the science of cooking (with samples!).

Patrick Charbonneau, Duke Chemist and Foodie

Around 10,000 years ago humans discovered that by fermenting milk you could turn it into yogurt, something that is more transportable, lasts longer, and digests easier. In the 1600s a new cooking apparatus called the “bone digester” (pressure cooker) allowed you to cook things faster while enhancing the flavor. When the 1800s came around, a scientist named Eben Horsford discovered that adding an acid with sodium bicarbonate creates baking powder. Soon enough scientific and kitchen minds started to collaborate, and new creations were made in the culinary world. As you can see, a lot of fundamental cooking techniques and ingredients we use today are a product of scientific discoveries.

Old-school pressure cookers. Forerunners of the Instant Pot.

Whisked Toffee

Freezer toffee, AKA caramel

A huge part of cooking is controlling the transformation of matter, or “a change in phase.” Professor Charbonneau presented a very cool example demonstrating how controlling this phase shift can affect your experience eating something. He made the same toffee recipe twice, but he changed it slightly as the melted toffee mixture was cooling. One version you stick straight in the freezer; the other you whisk as it cools. The whisked version turns out crumbly and sweeter; the other one turns into a chewy, shiny caramel. The audience got samples, and I could easily tell how different each version looked and tasted.

Charbonneau explained that while both toffees have the same ingredients, most people prefer the crumbly one because it seems sweeter (I agreed). This is because the chewier one takes longer to dissolve onto your taste buds, so your brain registers it as less sweet.

I was fascinated to learn that a lot of food is mostly just water. It’s weird to think a solid thing could be made of water, yet some foods are up to 99% water and still elastic! We have polymers — long repeating patterns of atoms in a chain — to thank for that. In fact, you can turn almost any liquid into a gel. Polymers take up little space but play a vital role in not only foods but other everyday objects, like contact lenses.

Charbonneau also showed us a seemingly magical way to make cake. He took about half a Dixie cup of cake batter, stuck a whipping siphon charged with nitrous oxide inside it for a second, then threw it in the microwave for thirty seconds. Boom, easy as cake. Out came a cup full of some pretty darn good fluffy chocolate cake. The gas bubbles in the butter and egg batter expand when they are heated up, causing the batter to gel and form a solid network.

Professor Charbonneau is doing stuff like this in his class here at Duke, “The Chemistry and Physics of Cooking,” all the time.

In the past ten years a surge in science-cooking related classes has emerged. The experiments you could do in a kitchen-lab are so cool and can make science appealing to those who might normally shy away from it.

Another cool thing I learned at the stations outside of Charbonneau’s talk was that Dipping Dots are made by dripping melted ice cream into a bowl of liquid nitrogen. The nitrogen is so cold that it flash-freezes the ice cream droplet into a ball-like shape!

Post by Will Sheehan

Will Sheehan

Artificial Intelligence Knows How You Feel

Ever wondered how Siri works? Afraid that super smart robots might take over the world soon?

On April 3rd researchers from Duke, NCSU and UNC came together for Triangle Machine Learning Day to provoke everyone’s curiosities about the complex field that is Artificial Intelligence. A.I. is an overarching term for smart technologies, ranging from self-driving cars to targeted advertising. We can arrive at artificial intelligence through what’s known as “machine learning.” Instead of explicitly programming a machine with the basic capabilities we want it to have, we can make it so that its code is flexible and adapts based on information it’s presented with. Its knowledge grows as a result of training it. In other words, we’re teaching a computer to learn.

Matthew Philips is working with Kitware to get computers to “see,” also known as “machine vision.” By providing thousands and thousands of images, a computer with the right coding can learn to actually make sense of what an image is beyond different colored pixels.

Machine vision has numerous applications. An effective way to search satellite imagery for arbitrary objects could be huge in the advancement of space technology – a satellite could potentially identify obscure objects or potential lifeforms that stick out in those images. This is something we as humans can’t do ourselves just because of the sheer amount of data there is to go through. Similarly, we could teach a machine to identify cancerous or malignant cells in an image, thus giving us a quick diagnosis if someone is at risk of developing a disease.

The problem is, how do you teach a computer to see? Machines don’t easily understand things like similarity, depth or orientation — things that we as humans do automatically without even thinking about. That’s exactly the type of problem Kitware has been tackling.

One hugely successful piece of Artificial Intelligence you may be familiar with is IBM’s Watson. Labeled as “A.I. for professionals,” Watson was featured on Sixty Minutes and even played Jeopardy on live television. Watson has visual recognition capabilities, can work as a translator, and can even understand things like tone, personality or emotional state. And obviously it can answer crazy hard questions. What’s even cooler is that it doesn’t matter how you ask the question – Watson will know what you mean. Watson is basically Siri on steroids, and the world got a taste of its power after watching it smoke its competitors on Jeopardy. However, Watson is not to be thought of as a physical supercomputer. It is a collection of technologies that can be used in many different ways, depending on how you train it. This is what makes Watson so astounding – through machine learning, its knowledge can adapt to the context it’s being used in.

Source: CBS News.

IBM has been able to develop such a powerful tool thanks to data. Stacy Joines from IBM noted, “Data has transformed every industry, profession, and domain.” From our smart phones to fitness devices, data is being collected about us as we speak (see: digital footprint). While it’s definitely pretty scary, the point is that a lot of data is out there. The more data you feed Watson, the smarter it is. IBM has utilized this abundance of data combined with machine learning to produce some of the most sophisticated AI out there.

Sure, it’s a little creepy how much data is being collected on us. Sure, there are tons of movies and theories out there about how intelligent robots in the future will outsmart humans and take over. But A.I. isn’t a thing to be scared of. It’s a beautiful creation that surpasses all capabilities even the most advanced purely programmable model has. It’s joining the health care system to save lives, advising businesses and could potentially find a new inhabitable planet. What we choose to do with A.I. is entirely up to us.

Post by Will Sheehan

Will Sheehan

Using Drones to Feed Billions

A drone flying over an agricultural field

Drones revolutionizing farming

As our population continues its rapid growth, food is becoming increasingly scarce. By the year 2050, we will need to double our current food production to feed the estimated 9.6 million mouths that will inhabit Earth.

A portrait of Maggie Monast

Maggie Monast

Thankfully, introducing drones and other high-tech equipment to farmers could be the solution to keeping our bellies full.

Last week, Dr. Ramon G. Leon of North Carolina State University and Maggie Monast of the Environmental Defense Fund spoke at Duke’s monthly Science & Society Dialogue, sharing their knowledge of what’s known as “precision agriculture.” At its core, precision agriculture is integrating technology with farming in order to maximize production.

It is easy to see that farming has already changed as a result of precision agriculture. The old family-run plot of land with animals and diverse crops has turned into large-scale, single-crop operations. This transition was made possible through the use of new technologies — tractors, irrigation, synthetic fertilizer, GMOs, pesticides — and is no doubt way more productive.

A portrait of Dr. Ramon G. Leon

Dr. Ramon G. Leon

So while the concept of precision agriculture certainly isn’t new, in today’s context it incorporates some particularly advanced and unexpected tools meant to further optimize yield while also conserving resources.

Drones equipped with special cameras and sensors, for example, can be flown over thousands of acres and gather huge amounts of data. This data produces a map of  things like pest damage, crop stress and yield. One image from a drone can easily help a farmer monitor what’s going on: where to cut back on resources, what needs more attention, and where to grow a certain type of crop. Some drones can even plant and water crops for you.

Blue River’s “See & Spray” focuses on cutting back herbicide use. Instead of spraying herbicide over an entire field and wasting most of it, this machine is trained to spray weeds directly, using 10% of the normal amount of herbicide.

Similarly, another machine called the Greenseeker can decide where, when and how much fertilizer should be applied based on the greenness of the crop. Fertilizing efficiently means saving money and emitting less ozone-depleting nitrous oxide.

As you can see, fancy toys like these are extremely beneficial, and there are more out there. They enable farmers to make faster, better decisions and understand their land on an unprecedented level. At the same time, farmers can cut back on their resource usage. This should eventually result in a huge productivity boom while helping out the environment. Nice.

One problem preventing these technologies from really taking off is teaching the farmers how to take advantage of them. As Dr. Leon put it, “we have all these toys, but nobody knows how to play with them.” However, this issue can resolved with enough time. Some older farmers love messing around with the drones, and the next generations of farmers will have more exposure to this kind of technology growing up. Sooner or later, it may be no big deal to spot drones circling above fields of wheat as you road trip through the countryside.

A piece of farm equipment in a field

A Greenseeker mounted on a Boom Sprayer

Precision agriculture is fundamental to the modern agricultural revolution. It increases efficiency and reduces waste, and farming could even become a highly profitable business again as the cost for these technologies goes down. Is it the solution to our environmental and production problems? I guess we’ll know by 2050!

Will Sheehan

Post By Will Sheehan

Student Ingenuity vs. Environmental Issues (like Cow Farts)

Lots of creative and potentially life changing ideas filled the Fitzpatrick CIEMAS atrium last weekend. From devices meant to address critical environmental issues such as global warming and lion fish invasiveness, to apps that help you become more sustainable, Duke’s Blueprint tech ideation conference showcased some awesome, good ol’ student-led ingenuity.

These bright students from around Durham (mostly from Duke) competed in teams to create something that would positively impact the environment. The projects were judged for applicability, daringness, and feasibility, among other things. During the Project Expo, all teams briefly presented to viewers like a school science fair.

One of the projects I liked a lot was called Entropy—a website with your own personal plant (I named mine “Pete”) that grows or dies depending on your sustainable actions throughout the day. The user answers simple yes or no questions, such as, “did you turn off the lights today?”

You can also complete daily goals to get accessories like a hat or mustache for your plant. The website connects to Facebook, so you can track your friends’ progress and see how green they’re living. Ultimately it’s just a good, fun way to keep your sustainability in check. Pete was looking super-cute after I spammed the yes button.

Another interesting innovation posed a solution to the difficulty of catching lion fish. Humans are a lion fish’s only predator, and we hunt them by spear fishing. Since lion fish are highly invasive, catching them en-masse could seriously benefit the biodiversity of the ocean (plus, they taste delicious). So one team came up with a canopy like contraption that attracts lion fish to hang out underneath it, and then snatches them all up at once like a net. Pretty neat idea, and if it was implemented on a large scale could be a huge benefit to the Earth’s oceans (and restaurants)!

After the expo, the top seven teams were selected and given three minutes to present to the judges and audience as a whole.

Every project was astounding. “Collide-o-scope” came up with a simple Arduino-based device to transmit elephant seismic activity to train drivers nearby in order to reduce the number of train-elephant collisions in India and Sri Lanka — currently a huge problem, for both us as humans and the elephant population.

Another team, “Manatee Marker,” proposed a system of solar powered buoys to detect manatees, with the hope of reducing frequent manatee-boat accidents. Considering that manatees are quiet, basically camouflaged, and thermally invisible, this was quite an ingenious task.

Perhaps my favorite project, “Algenie” stole the show. Methane gas is a huge factor to global warming — around twenty-five times more potent as a heat-trapping gas than Carbon Dioxide — and a lot of it comes from cow farts. However, we’ve recently discovered that putting seaweed in cow feed actually lowers methane emissions almost entirely! So this team came up with a vertical, three-dimensional way to grow algae — opposed to “two-dimensionally” growing across a pond — that would maximize production. Global warming is obviously a massive issue right now and Algenie is looking to change that. They ended up getting first place, and winning a prize of $1,000 along with GoPros for every team member.

Algenie’s prototype

At the end of the day, it wasn’t about the prize money. The competition was meant to generate creative and practical ideas, while promoting making a difference. After  attending the expo I felt more aware of all the environmental issues and influenced to help out. Even if you don’t feel like spending the time drafting up a crazy buoy manatee-detecting system, you can still do your part by living sustainably day to day.

Blueprint has done an awesome job of spurring young, enthusiastic students towards helping this planet — one cow fart at a time.

Post by Will Sheehan; Will SheehanPictures from Duke Conservation Tech

“I Heart Tech Fair” Showcases Cutting-Edge VR and More

Duke’s tech game is stronger than you might think.

OIT held an “I Love Tech Fair” in the Technology Engagement Center / Co-Lab on Feb. 6 that was open to anyone to come check out things like 3D printers and augmented reality, while munching on some Chick-fil-a and cookies. There was a raffle for some sweet prizes, too.

I got a full demonstration of the 3D printing process—it’s so easy! It requires some really expensive software called Fusion, but thankfully Duke is awesome and students can get it for free. You can make some killer stuff 3D printing, the technology is so advanced now. I’ve seen all kinds of things: models of my friend’s head, a doorstop made out of someone’s name … one guy even made a working ukulele apparently!

One of the cooler things at the fair was Augmented Reality books. These books look like ordinary picture books, but looking at a page through your phone’s camera, the image suddenly comes to life in 3D with tons of detail and color, seemingly floating above the book! All you have to do is download an app and get the right book. Augmented reality is only getting better as time goes on and will soon be a primary tool in education and gaming, which is why Duke Digital Initiative (DDI) wanted to show it off.

By far my favorite exhibit at the tech fair was  virtual reality. Throw on a headset and some bulky goggles, grab a controller in each hand, and suddenly you’re in another world. The guy running the station, Mark McGill, had actually hand-built the machine that ran it all. Very impressive guy. He told me the machine is the most expensive and important part, since it accounts for how smooth the immersion is. The smoother the immersion, the more realistic the experience. And boy, was it smooth. A couple years ago I experienced virtual reality at my high school and thought it was cool (I did get a little nauseous), but after Mark set me up with the “HTC Vive” connected to his sophisticated machine, it blew me away (with no nausea, too).

I smiled the whole time playing “Super Hot,” where I killed incoming waves of people in slow motion with ninja stars, guns, and rocks. Mark had tons of other games too, all downloaded from Steam, for both entertainment and educational purposes. One called “Organon” lets you examine human anatomy inside and out, and you can even upload your own MRIs. There’s an unbelievable amount of possibilities VR offers. You could conquer your fear of public speaking by being simulated in front of a crowd, or realistically tour “the VR Museum of Fine Art.” Games like these just aren’t the same were you to play them on, say, an Xbox, because it simply doesn’t have that key factor of feeling like you’re there. In Fallout 4, your heart pounds fast in your chest as you blast away Feral Ghouls and Super Mutants right in front of you. But in reality, you’re just standing in a green room with stupid looking goggles on. Awesome!

There’s another place on campus — the Bolt VR in Edens residence hall — that also has a cutting-edge VR setup going. Mark explained to me that Duke wants people to get experience with VR, as it will soon be a huge part of our lives. Having exposure now could give Duke graduates a very valuable head start in their career (while also making Duke look good). Plus, it’s nice to have on campus for offering students a fun break from all the hard work we put in.

If you’re bummed you missed out, or even if you don’t “love tech,” I recommend checking out the Tech Fair next time — February 13, from 6-8pm. See you there.

Post By Will Sheehan

Will Sheehan

Exercise is Good for Your Head and Might Fight Alzheimer’s

Recent studies have confirmed that exercising is just about the best thing you can do for your brain health.

Dan Blazer, MD is a psychiatrist who studies aging.

On Dec. 1 during the DIBS event, Exercise and the Brain, Duke psychiatrist Dan Blazer reported findings about the relationship between physical activity and brain health. After lots of research, study groups at the National Academy of Medicine  concluded that their number one recommendation to those experiencing “cognitive aging” is exercise.

Processing speed, memory, and reasoning decline over time in every one of us. But thankfully, simple things like riding a bike or playing pick up basketball can help keep our minds fresh and at their best possible level.

One cool thing a committee conducting the research did to advertise their findings was create keychains saying “take your brain for a walk.” There’s a little image of a brain with legs walking. They wanted to get the word out that physical activity has another benefit than just staying in shape — it can also support your cognitive health.

However, the committees are having a hard time motivating people to exercise in the first place. Even after hearing their findings, it’s not like people everywhere are suddenly going to get off their couches and hit the gym. A world with healthier people — both physically and mentally — sounds nice, but getting there is much more than a matter of publishing these studies.

And, as always, too much of a good thing can make it harmful. While there does seem to appear a potential “biological gradient,” where greater physical activity correlated with better outcomes, you can’t just run a marathon every day of the week and then ~boom~ aging hardly affects your brain anymore. You don’t want to do that to yourself. Just get a healthy amount of exercise and you’ll be keeping your brain young and smart.

One of the best parts about why exercising is so great for you and your brain is because it helps you sleep (and we all know how important sleep is). If you ever have trouble going to bed or are having disrupted sleeps, physical activity could be your savior. It’s a much healthier option for your brain than taking stuff like melatonin, and you’ll get fit in the process.

Regarding exercising and Alzheimer’s, a disease where vital mental functions deteriorate, studies have unfortunately been insufficient to conclude anything. But if getting Alzheimer’s is your worst fear, I’m sure staying active can’t hurt as a preventative. More research on this topic is being conducted as we speak.

When is the best time to start exercising, in order to reap the maximum cognitive benefits, you ask? Well, the sooner the better. As Blazer said, “exercising helps in maintaining or improving cognitive function in later life,” so you better get on that. Go outside and get moving!

Will Sheehan      Post by Will Sheehan

 

 

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