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

Students exploring the Innovation Co-Lab

Category: Anthropology Page 1 of 2

Reducing Food Insecurity and Creating Community at Durham’s Catawba Trail Farm

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At Catawba Trail Farm in north Durham, the idea of community remains at the forefront of all that they do. A space dedicated to growing, learning, and diligent work, the farm invites all willing to become involved. Recently, students at Duke University had the opportunity to bear witness to these qualities, through a course taught by Dr. Brian McAdoo of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Picture of volunteers at Catawba Trail Farm (Credit: @UrbanCommunityAgrinomics on Instagram.)

The Catawba Trail Farm was once known as Snowhill Plantation, yet despite this co-founder Delphine Sellars refers to it as “a place of healing.” This is because Sellars recognizes the importance of acknowledging the past when attempting to shape the future. Sellars’ focus is on taking land formerly used to abuse enslaved people and transforming it into a place of empowerment and healing. This is seen through the connection between the farm and McAdoo’s course here at Duke. The course, “Exploring Earth Sciences: Surviving Anthropocene in North Carolina,” explores a range of themes such as food insecurity, environmental justice, and global change through the context of environmental studies. Additionally, McAdoo’s course has what is referred to as the ‘Catawba Trail Mission’ where Duke students, in partnership with Catawba Trail Farm, seek to not only target this food insecurity within the community, but also uncover the history hidden within the roots of the farm.  

Picture of Delphine Sellars (Credit: @UrbanCommunityAgrinomics on Instagram.)

The most recent progress of this mission can be seen through the class’s work with the gravesite of William Johnston, who established Snowhill Plantation in 1763. Through a geophysical survey, the class identified several unmarked graves of enslaved people buried with the Johnston family. Through this they have worked to trace their lineages to their loved ones and inform them of their findings. The class has also used this same technology to help identify and ensure that the traits and key aspects of the land are fully understood and respected. 

Picture of volunteers at Catawba Trail Farm (Credit: @UrbanCommunityAgrinomics on Instagram.)

Through the work between Duke and Catawba Trail Farm, students are granted the opportunity to take their learning beyond the textbook and truly begin to understand the depth behind the land outside of technological gadgets. Catawba Trail Farm helps in this journey while simultaneously learning more about the rich nature of the land and its inhabitants. This constant sense of learning and support is what makes students such as Duke master’s student, Roo Jackson, comfortable in saying Catawba Trail Farm “feels like home.” 

Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027
Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027

Rosetta Reitz: The Life Behind the Music

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A 1983 New Yorker article by Whitney Balliet argued that “Women don’t have the grace and poise to play jazz.” While this comment wasn’t uncommon for the time, it certainly wasn’t universally accepted. In fact, this comment is what feminist writer and producer, Rosetta Reitz, sought to disprove through her decades-long efforts to promote underrepresented records. 

This past Tuesday Feb. 6, the “Rosetta Reitz’s Musical Archive of Care” Bass Connections team hosted a discussion pertaining to the origins, findings, and thought process of this archive. Leading this discussion were researchers Anthony Kelley, Duke Professor, and Tift Merritt, Grammy-nominated musician.  In this, the pair explored the key theme of artistic empathy utilized through the archival process. Archival artistic empathy describes the act of not making yourself the center of your findings but allowing them to enlarge your compassion. This theme was pertinent not only for Merritt’s research journey but also for that of Reitz. 

Rosetta Rietz was a feminist, historian, and producer who recognized the absence of female voices within the jazz industry and sought to find the root cause. Through her efforts she quickly recognized that the women were there, they were simply unheard. Rosetta, determined to change this fact, began to collect information about the music of these women as a means of building a platform for them in Rosetta Records. This recording company was created for the sole purpose of promoting, rediscovering, and establishing the voices of women in the jazz industry, a rarity for the time period. With exactly 97 women under her records, Reitz was unwavering in her attempts to get their music picked up by major radio stations. Rosetta Records would go on to produce eighteen albums dedicated to many talented unknown singers and even some as big as Billie Holiday.  

From L to R: Tift Merritt, Annie Koppes and Anthony Kelley (Picture taken by Yasaman Baghban)

Rosetta was truly an influential creative whose influence extended beyond that of music. She was the owner of a bookstore in Greenwich Village. She went on to write one of the first books on menopause and on the absence of women in jazz.  She was an active member in her community seeking to recognize and correct injustices. Reitz was truly someone whose compassion and artistic empathy shone through. This is not to say that attempts at not centering herself were always successful. Reitz often faced backlash from the media for appearing disingenuous due to ethical and legal concerns surrounding her work. These concerns largely apply to works such as her Jailhouse Blues record which utilized the voices and struggles of women in a Mississippi prison, released by Mississippi congress, to create a record. Many questioned if these women consented to this, how they felt to find this, and the overall ethicality in creating this.  

Bass Connections team members Lindsay Frankfort and Trisha Santanam.

The legacy of Rosetta Reitz is one full of great passion and love for the art that is jazz and women’s place within it. The Bass Connections research team has managed to bring it to life by employing their own artistic empathy. They have created a full picture of the complexities, devotion and love Rosetta had for life’s work further cementing the fact that women indeed have a rightful place within the jazz industry.  

Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027
Post by Gabrielle Douglas, Class of 2027

International Experience Shaped Epidemiologist’s Career Path

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Note: Each year, we partner with Dr. Amy Sheck’s students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math to profile some unsung heroes of the Duke research community. This is the sixth of eight posts.

In the complex world of scientific exploration, definitive answers often prove elusive, and each discovery brings with it a nuanced understanding that propels us forward. Dr. Dana Kristine Pasquale’s journey in public health serves as a testament to the intricate combination of exploration and redirection that have shaped her into the seasoned scientist she is today.

Pasquale said her scientific path has been  “…a nonlinear journey, that’s been a series of over-corrections. As I’ve gone from one thing to another, that hasn’t turned out to be what I expected.”

Dana Pasquale Ph.D.

Anchored in her formative years in a study abroad experience in Angola, Africa during undergraduate studies, Pasquale’s exposure to clinical challenges left an indelible mark. She keenly observed the cyclic nature of treating infections by shadowing a local physician. 

“We would treat the same people from month to month for the same kinds of infections,” she recalled. 

Things like economic and social barriers weren’t as stark there – everyone was at the same level, and there was no true impact that she could make investigating them. This realization sparked a profound understanding that perhaps a structural, community-focused intervention could holistically address healthcare needs – water, sanitation, etc. It set the course for her future research endeavors.

Upon returning to the U.S., she orchestrated a deliberate shift in her academic trajectory, choosing to immerse herself in medical anthropology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Her mission was clear: to unravel how local communities conceptualize health. Engaging with mothers and child health interventionists, she delved into health behavior, yet found herself grappling with persistent frustrations. 

“I found [health behavior] frustrating because there were still a lot of structural issues that made things impossible,” she says. “And even when you think you’re removing some of the barriers, you’re not removing the most important ones.”

 Rather than being a roadblock, this frustration became a catalyst for Pasquale, propelling her toward the realms of epidemiology and sociology. Here, the exploration of macro and structural factors aligned seamlessly with her vision for sustainable public health, providing the missing pieces to the intricate puzzle she was trying to solve. She didn’t expect to end up here until her mentor suggested going back to school for it.

As principal investigator of Duke’s RDS2 COVID-19 Research and Data Services project during the early months of the pandemic, Pasquale navigated the challenges associated with transitioning contact-tracing efforts online. Despite hurdles in data collection due to the project’s reliance on human interaction and testing, the outcome was an innovative online platform, minimizing interaction and invasiveness. This accomplishment beautifully intertwines with her ongoing work on scalable strategies to enhance efficiency in public health activities during epidemics. 

“We had a lot of younger people say that they would prefer to enter their contacts online rather than talk to someone… something that could be a companion to public health, not subverting contact-tracing, which is an essential public health activity.”

Pasquale’s expansive portfolio extends to an HIV Network Analysis for contact tracing and intelligent testing allocation. Presently, she is immersed in a project addressing bacterial hospital infections among patients and hospital personnel, a testament to her unwavering commitment to tackling critical health challenges from various angles.

When queried about her approach to mentoring and teaching, Pasquale imparts a valuable piece of wisdom from her mentor: “If you’re not completely embarrassed by the first work you ever presented at a conference, then you haven’t come far enough.” 

Her belief in the transformative power of mistakes and the non-linear trajectory in science resonates in her guidance to students, encouraging them to not only accept but embrace the inherent twists and turns in their scientific journeys. As they navigate their scientific journeys, she advocates for the importance of learning and growing from each experience, fostering resilience and adaptability in the ever-evolving landscape of scientific exploration.

Guest Post by Ashika Kamjula, North Carolina School of Math and Science, Class of 2024

Historic Stagville: Stories of Resilience

I was overwhelmed with tranquility while driving along the everlasting gravel road, encased by looming, forest green trees. This healing reconnection with nature towards the entrance nearly allowed me to forget the purpose of my visit at Historic Stagville in Durham. However, as we arrived closer to the entrance of this state protected historic site, I recalled the haunting darkness of America’s past. Approximately 25 minutes away from Duke University lies what was once the largest plantation site in North Carolina, owned by the Bennehan and Cameron families. At its height, the families owned 30,000 acres and over 900 enslaved people. 

Richard Bennehan married Mary Amis in 1776 and acquired the original 66 acres of historic land in 1787. Their home, Stagville, was built by enslaved people on this land and further renovated with an additional story in 1799. They would raise two children, Rebecca and Thomas. Rebecca married Duncan Cameron in 1803 and had two sons and six daughters. Despite their plethora of children, most of the estate was given to their son, Paul, as the other children died and/or did not have heirs. Paul would eventually marry Anne Ruffin and have seven children. These generations of Camerons along with the original Bennehans furthered their infamous and appalling familial legacy of undeserved wealth through slavery.

Despite the Bennehan/Cameron family’s power, wealth, and dominance, the enslaved people of Stagville remained resilient against their injustices. For instance, Emma Turner Henderson decided to continue working for the Camerons as a cook after their emancipation; however, she and her family were evicted on a count of “imprudence” as Emma had claimed ownership of her newfound freedom, claimed ownership of the equality she shared with the white woman who had previously owned her, and claimed ownership of the violence she endured under their regime. According to Paul’s records, Emma had told Margaret Cameron that their disrespectful treatment is not justified as “[Emma’s] skin is nearly as white as [Margaret’s]– that her hair is just as straight– and that she was quite as free”. 

Mary Walker was the fifth generation of formerly enslaved people for the Camerons, born in 1820. She was given to four of Duncan Cameron’s daughters when she was nine years old. These young daughters would eventually pass away from tuberculosis, which is why she was given to their sister, Mildred. Mary Walker would act as Mildren’s caretaker as she had an unknown illness that required a wheelchair. She would frequently travel to Philadelphia during the summer, a free state, with the Camerons for Mildred’s medical appointments. By this point, Mary Walker had three children of her own and she constantly feared their safety. Therefore, Mary Walker evaded the Camerons on her last visit to Philadelphia in 1848 as her freedom was protected under the 1847 Personal Liberty Law. She was employed as a seamstress and spent the rest of her life attempting to reunite with her children. Walker attempted to purchase them from the Camerons or even kidnap them from the estate. Even with three known rescue attempts, Walker was unable to live with her children. That is, until seventeen years later, in which a Union soldier reunited Mary Walker with two of her children, Agnes and Bryant, after the Civil War. Historians do not believe that Mary reunited with her eldest son, Frank, as it is assumed that he escaped. His escape from the plantation was a miraculous feat as it would have taken Frank around two weeks to walk off the estate alone. While the Camerons did place ads for Frank, he could have passed as a white man as he had fair skin, blue eyes, straight black hair, and freckles. The greatest act of resilience from Mary Walker was her success as a seamstress after she settled in Cambridge as she created a strong reputation and a healthy life for herself and her family, despite the evil conditions of her past because of the Camerons. 

As I explored Stagville and Horton Grove, where the enslaved laborers built their homes and lived as they worked for the plantation, I felt the looming presence of their horrifying traumas throughout the estate. I spent time in each room of the luxurious (for its time period) Stagville home in which enslaved people were constantly beside those who committed the most injustice against them. I compared this to the unlivable conditions of the enslaved family homes in Horton Grove where eight people would stay in each room per building. Along the brick walls of these homes remain fingerprints from enslaved people from the creation of the bricks. One brick, in particular, encased the toe-prints of a small child from hundreds of years ago. 

Despite the unimaginable injustice generations of enslaved people endured from the Camerons, their resilient legacy continues with dignified honor. A number of formerly enslaved families continued to sharecrop at Stagville until the 1970s, when it became a state protected site, or settled in nearby locations as a testament to their familial heritage.

Bennehan/Cameron Stagville home

Average dwelling on Horton Grove

A child’s toe prints on the right-side of the third brick from the bottom of a brick on Horton Grove

By Samera Eusufzai, Class of 2026

Bolivia’s Lithium is Like White Gold in the Salar de Uyuni

As the world undergoes the great energy transition — from fossil fuels to alternative energy and batteries — rare earth metals are becoming more precious.

Open The Economist, Forbes, or Fortune, and you’ll see an article nearly every day on Lithium, Nickel, or Copper. For investors seeking to profit off of the transition, lithium seems like a sure bet. Dubbed “white gold” for electric vehicles, the lightweight metal plays a key role in the cathodes of all types of lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles (EVs). Although EVs produce fewer greenhouse gasses than gas- or diesel-powered vehicles, their batteries require more minerals, particularly lithium. 

On Sept. 26, Duke’s campus welcomed the first in a series of discussions on climate and energy diplomacy focused on the challenges and opportunities of mining and development in South America’s Lithium Triangle. In a room crowded with curious undergraduate and graduate students alike, some lucky enough to have snagged a seat while others stood at the perimeters, three experts discussed the possible future of Bolivia as a major player in the global lithium market. 

Professor Avner Vengosh of the Nicholas School

Duke Distinguished Professor Avner Vengosh, Nicholas Chair of Environmental Quality in the Nicholas School of the Environment, began by highlighting the staggering EV growth in 2020-2022: Sales of electric cars have more than tripled in three years, from around 4% of new car sales in 2020 to 14% in 2022. That number is expected to rise to 29.50% in 2028. Speaking of the critical element to EV production, lithium, Vengosh said frankly, “we don’t have enough.” 

Lithium is mined from two major sources, Vengosh explained. The first is from hard-rock pegmatite, where lithium is extracted through a series of chemical processes. Most of these deposits are found in Australia, the world’s biggest source. The second is from lithium-rich brines, typically found in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, also known as the “Lithium Triangle.” These brine deposits are typically found in underground reservoirs beneath salt flats or saltwater lakes. The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the world’s largest salt lake, and the largest lithium source in the world. It stretches more than 4,050 square miles and attracts tourists with its reflective, mirror-like surface. 

Mountains surrounding the Uyuni salt flat during sunrise By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47617647
Mountains surrounding the Uyuni salt flat during sunrise, (Diego Delso)

A group of Duke students led by a PhD candidate pursuing research on Bolivian lithium development recently traveled to Bolivia to understand different aspects of lithium mining. They asked questions including: 

  • How renewable is the lithium brine? 
  • Are there other critical raw minerals in the lithium-rich brines? 
  • What are the potential environmental effects of lithium extraction?
  • What is the water footprint of the lithium extraction process?
  • Is water becoming a limiting factor for lithium production?

The Duke team conducted a study with the natural brine in the Salar, taking samples of deep brines, evaporation ponds, salts from evaporation ponds, wastewaters, and the lithium carbonate. Vengosh said that “we can see some inconsistency in the chemistry of the water that is flowing into the chemistry of the brine.”

This indicates that there is a more complex geological process in the formation of the brine than the simple flow of water into the lake. The team also confirmed the high purity of the lithium carbonate product and that there are no impurities in the material. Additionally, the Duke team found that the wastewater chemistry produced after lithium carbonate production is not different from that of the original brines. Thus, there are no limitations for recycling the water back to the Salar system.

After Vengosh shared the findings of the Duke research team, Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network (AIN) in Cochabamba, Bolivia and Dr. Scott MacDonald, chief economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings and a Caribbean Policy Consortium Fellow, discussed Bolivia’s lithium policy. With the largest untapped lithium deposits in the world, Bolivia has constructed a pilot plan for their lithium production, but Ledebur highlighted that the biggest hurdle is scaling. Additionally, with a unique prior-consultation system in place between the central government and 36 ethnic and indigenous groups in Bolivia, natural resources are a key topic of concern and grassroots action. Ledebur said, “I don’t see that issue changing any time soon.”

Another hurdle is that Bolivian law requires that the extraction process is controlled by the state (the state must own 51%). Foreign investors have been hesitant to work with the central government, which nationalized lithium in 2008 despite, critics said, lacking much of the necessary technology and expertise. 

Maxwell Radwin, a writer for Mongabay, writes, “Evo Morales, the former socialist president who served from 2006 to 2019, nationalized the industry, promising that foreign interests wouldn’t plunder Bolivia’s natural resources as they had in the past. Instead, he said, lithium would propel the country to the status of a world power. Morales didn’t just want to export lithium, though; he wanted to produce batteries and cars for export. This complicated deals with potential investors from France, Japan, Russia and South Korea, none of which came to fruition because, among other things, they were required to take on YLB (the state-owned lithium company) as an equal partner.”

Ledebur said, “At this point in time, the Bolivian government has signed three contracts… and I think things will fall into place.” 

Naysayers say that the Bolivian government hasn’t done anything to take advantage of the massive market sitting beneath their Salars and that grassroot consultations don’t work. Ledebur said, “I don’t think that it’s perfect, but it’s happening.”

Duke students will return to Bolivia with professor Vengosh next year to conduct more research on the lithium extraction process. Then, they’ll be able to see the effects of this ‘happening’ first-hand. 

By Isa Helton, Class of 2026

New Blogger Isa Helton: Asking AND Listening

When I studied abroad in Paris, France, this summer, I became very familiar with the American tendencies that French people collectively despise. As I sat in a windowless back room of the school I would be studying at in the sixth arrondissement of Paris, the program director carefully warned us of the biggest faux-pas that would make our host families regret welcoming a foreign student into their home and the habitudes that would provoke irritated second glances on the street.

Eiffel Tower and the Seine at dusk
La Seine at dusk with Tour Eiffel.

One: American people are loud. Don’t be loud. We are loud when we talk on the phone, loud putting on our shoes, loud stomping around the Haussmanian apartment built in the 1800s with creaky parquet flooring.

Two: Americans smile too much. Don’t smile at people on the street. No need for a big, toothy grin at every passerby and at every unsuspecting dog-walker savoring the few tourist-free morning hours.

Three: Why do Americans love to ask questions without any intention of sticking around to hear the response? When French people ask you how you’re doing – Comment ça va?– how you slept – Vous-avez bien dormi? – how the meal was – Ça vous a plu? – they stand there and wait for an answer after asking the question. So when Americans exchange a jolly “How are you today!” in passing, it drives French people crazy. Why ask a question if you don’t even want an answer?

This welcome post feels a little bit like that American “How are you today!” Not to say that you, reader, are not a patient, intrigued Frenchman or woman, who is genuinely interested in a response –  I am well-assured that the readers of Duke’s Research Blog are just the opposite. That is to say that the question of “who are you?” is quite complicated to answer in a single, coherent blog post. I will proudly admit that I am still in the process of figuring out who I am. And isn’t that what I’m supposed to be doing in college, anyway?

I can satisfyingly answer a few questions about me, though, starting with where I am from. I’m lucky enough to call Trabuco Canyon, California my home– a medium-sized city about fifteen minutes from the beach, and smack-dab in the middle of San Diego and Los Angeles. Demographically, it’s fairly uninteresting; 68% White, 19% Hispanic, and 8% Asian. I’ve never moved, so I suppose this would imply that most of my life has been fairly unexposed to cultural diversity. However, I think one of the things that has shaped me the most has been experiencing different cultures in my travels growing up.

My dad is a classically-trained archaeologist turned environmental consultant, and I grew up observing his constant anthropological analysis of people and situations in the countries we traveled to. I learned from him the richness of a compassionate, empathetic, multi-faceted life that comes from traveling, talking to people, and being curious. I am impassioned by discovering new cultures and uncovering new schools of thought through breaking down linguistic barriers, which is one of the reasons I am planning on majoring in French Studies.

Perhaps from my Korean mother I learned perseverance, mental strength, and toughness. I also gained practicality, which explains my second major, Computer Science. Do I go crazy over coding a program that creates a simulation of the universe (my latest assignment in one of my CS classes)? Not particularly. But, you have to admit, the degree is a pretty good security blanket.

Why blog? Writing is my therapy and has always been one of my passions. Paired with an unquenchable curiosity and a thirst to converse with people different from me, writing for the Duke Research Blog gives me what my boss Karl Bates – Executive Director, Research Communications – calls “a license to hunt.”

Exclusive, top-researcher-only, super-secret conference on campus about embryonics? I’ll be making a bee-line to the speakers with my notepad in hand, thank you. Completely-sold-out talk by the hottest genome researcher on the academic grapevine? You can catch me in the front row. In short, blogging on Duke Research combines multiple passions of mine and gives me the chance to flex my writing muscles.

Thus, I am also cognizant of the privilege and the responsibility that this license to hunt endows me with. It must be said that elite universities are famously – and in reality – extremely gated-off from the rest of society. While access to Duke’s physical space may still be exclusive, the knowledge within is for anyone’s taking.

In this blog, I hope to dismantle the barrier between you and what can sometimes seem like intimidating, high-level research that is being undertaken on Duke’s campus. I hope to make my blogs a mini bi-monthly revelation that can enrich your intellect and widen your perspective. And don’t worry – when it comes to posing questions to researchers, I plan to stick around to hear the response.

Read my summer blogs from my study abroad in Paris HERE!

Post by Isabella Helton, Class of 2026

Highlights from Duke in Australia

Duke in Australia 2023 in front of 1.9-billion-year-old stone in the Northern Territory. Photo by one of our tour guides.

Australia. For years it was more of a nebulous concept to me than a concrete place. It was a colorful patch on maps, home to animals I’d read about but never seen. Now it’s a place where I’ve run my hands over 1.9-billion-year-old stone, watched a platypus emerge from a river at dawn, gotten bitten on the tongue by an ant with a tasty green butt (long story), and spent a thousand other moments with wonderful people in places I hope to never forget.

That’s all thanks to Duke in Australia, a month-long biogeography course led by Alex Glass, Ph.D., and Nancy Lauer, Ph.D., that delves into Australian flora, fauna, geology, history, and culture. When people ask about my experience there this summer, I have a hard time answering. “Wonderful” doesn’t begin to cover it. The experience still doesn’t feel entirely real to me. Even when I was in Australia, watching a platypus or a parrot or standing on a beach with a sunrise on one side and a rainbow on the other, I sometimes couldn’t entirely believe where I was.

Sunrise at Myall Beach on Cape Tribulation, where the Daintree Rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef.

Disclaimer: When I say “Highlights from Duke in Australia,” I’m referring to my own personal highlights—some of which, let me assure you, were not universally popular with my classmates. Like the enormous crickets we saw on our rainforest night hike, or the time I found the shed skin of a huntsman spider and went around showing it to everyone nearby, or the delightfully squelchy mud coating the trail on one of our last hikes. For more detailed accounts of our day-to-day activities, check out the student blogs on the Duke in Australia 2023 website.

From the moment we landed in Sydney, I was keeping my eyes peeled for bird sightings. (I am slightly into birds. Just slightly.) Unless you count an ambiguous white flash seen through a bus window, my first bird sighting in Australia was a small group of rainbow lorikeets flying over the city. With a blue head and stomach, a green back, an orange-red breast, and flashes of yellow under the wings, the species is very well named.

Lorikeets weren’t the only birds we saw in Sydney. Common mynas, which always looked vaguely sinister to me, watched us while we ate dinner the first night. Pigeons strutted along the sidewalks—the only bird species I saw in Australia that I’d also seen in the US, except a possible peregrine falcon that I caught only a brief glimpse of during a hike. There were also Australian ibises all over the city, colloquially known as bin chickens for their dumpster-diving habits. Personally, I thought the ibises were lovely, regal birds.

There are other birds, however, that can no longer call Sydney home. One of my favorite sites in Sydney was the Forgotten Songs art installation at Angel Place. It is a short alley engraved with the names of fifty bird species that can no longer survive in the city. Empty bird cages hang suspended above the street. Our tour guide told us that the exhibit normally plays recordings of the birds, but that part was under renovation, so it was playing music instead. A few days later, I returned to the exhibit on my own so I’d have time to read every bird name. Those empty cages still haunt me.

An eleven-armed seastar in one of the tide pools at Bondi Beach. (Eleven-armed seastars do not always have eleven arms.) Below it, you can see Neptune’s necklace, a type of algae resembling strings of beads.

On our first full day in Sydney, we went to Bondi Beach to explore the tidepools. There were crabs and octopi, seastars and anemones, necklace-like algae and tiny blue snails called little blue periwinkles. That afternoon, we sat on the beach and learned about microplastics from Lauer. (Not-so-fun fact: we eat a credit card’s worth of microplastics every week on average.) Some of us lingered on the beach afterward and went swimming. The water was frigid, but it was there, with cold water and sand swirling around me in a part of the ocean I’d never seen, much less swum in, that the reality of being on a new continent completely hit me.

Sunshine wattle flowers on our hike at North Head, viewed through a hand lens.

Our first group hike was overwhelming, almost dizzying. Outside of urban Sydney, it was easier for me to recognize just how different Australia was from the US, and it was impossible to absorb everything at once. In every direction were unfamiliar plants and landscapes. Norfolk pine, coastal rosemary, mountain devil, sunshine wattle, Darwinia, flannel flower, gray spider flower…. I was especially entranced by casuarina, which looks shockingly like a pine tree but is actually a flowering plant that has evolved conifer-like traits to preserve water. We were in a heath, characterized by low-growing plants adapted to dry, nutrient-poor conditions. Nothing about it looked like the woods and fields and mountains back home.

Our focus that day was studying plants, but I was having a hard time focusing on any one thing for more than about a second. At one point, we were supposed to be observing a beautiful plant to my right, but half the group had already moved on to another species farther up the trail, and meanwhile, a bird I had certainly never seen in my life was perched remarkably cooperatively on a bush off to the left. There are too many things happening, I remember thinking. I was juggling my field notebook, hand lens, phone camera, and binoculars, and I didn’t even know where to look. I chose to stare at the bird, following the logic that it could fly away at any moment, whereas the plants would stay exactly where they were. That brilliant plan turned out to be faulty. The plants might stay still, but we wouldn’t—so much to see, so little time.

A galah, a species of cockatoo, in Katoomba.

Our next stop was Katoomba, a small mountain town in New South Wales.  It was a quiet, peaceful place, vastly different from Sydney. When I think of Katoomba, I think of the sulfur-crested cockatoo perched on a bakery sign just feet away from me and the flock of strikingly pink cockatoos called galahs in a local park. I think of the superb lyrebird that crossed our path directly in front of us and the rare Wollemi pine growing beside a road.

We took a hike at Wentworth Falls, where Darwin himself once walked. It’s part of the Great Dividing Range, but we learned that the mountains are actually “incised terrain,” formed when valleys were cut into a plateau, leaving “mountains” behind. We also drove to the Jenolan Caves and explored cavernous underground spaces bursting with crystal formations like stalactites, flowstone, and hollow soda straws. These lovely, fragile cave structures, or speleothems, are formed by the gradual deposition of dissolved minerals as water drips through a cave. Before we left, we saw an underground river with water so clear that I didn’t immediately realize I was looking at water at all.

Part of the Jenolan Caves. Gradual geologic processes form decorative structures, or speleothems, in caves.

Another day in Katoomba, our group took a gorgeous hike through a eucalypt forest. Literally everywhere I looked in that forest, there was something extraordinary. Ancient tree ferns. Ruby-red sap seeping out of a tree trunk. The Three Sisters rock formation framed by the aptly named Blue Mountains. Towering eucalypt and turpentine trees. At the end of the hike, we rode the Scenic Railway, the steepest in the world. It was terrifying—awesome, but terrifying.

A view from one of our hikes in the Blue Mountains.

Next, we flew to the Northern Territory, where we checked into our hostel in Darwin. We were now in crocodile country, home to the world’s largest reptile: the saltwater or estuarine crocodile. We were instructed to avoid going in any body of water, saltwater or otherwise, unless it was specifically designated as safe for swimming. (The name “saltwater crocodile” is misleading—the crocodiles can inhabit fresh water as well, and they are extremely aggressive and dangerous.) It was very important to be crocwise.

A rainbow bee-eater at the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens in Darwin, a city in the Northern Territory.

The first few days in Darwin, we didn’t see any crocodiles, but there were birds seemingly everywhere. Varied triller, which I originally misidentified as the buff-sided robin until a local eBird reviewer emailed me and asked me to correct my eBird report. Rainbow bee-eater, remarkably common for a bird that looks too beautiful to be real. Peaceful dove. Blue-faced honeyeater. Australasian figbird.

We took a hike that went through a beautiful mangrove, where we learned that the term mangrove isn’t specific to any particular type of plant; it’s used to refer to many very different species that have all adapted to the same challenges, including salinity, changing tides, and nutrient-poor soil. There were crabs and snails and birds—so many birds, some of which I still haven’t identified, like the group of black, crested birds with bright red inside their beaks.

Green weaver ants. Note their distinctive green abdomens, which contain ascorbic acid and have an interesting taste.

When we emerged from the mangrove, we came across a nest of green weaver ants. Their bright green abdomens are rich in ascorbic acid, and the ants have traditionally been used for purposes ranging from treating colds to making a sort of “lemonade” to stimulating milk production. Many of us were eager to taste the ants, though Glass warned us that they “bite vigorously.” Some of my classmates carefully held an ant with their fingers while giving the abdomen a quick lick. I, on the other hand, decided to let an ant crawl onto my notebook while I licked it so it couldn’t bite my fingers. Clever, right? Well, it worked—the ant didn’t bite my fingers. It bit my tongue instead. “Vigorously.” Its mouthparts remained latched on even as I was spitting out ant parts onto the ground. I can’t blame it—I’d be upset, too, if a giant tried to lick me.

Before long, it was time for the jumping crocodile tour. We boarded a tour boat and floated down a seemingly peaceful river while our guide dangled hunks of meat from big fishing rods to bait the crocodiles to leap several feet out of the water and snap their jaws around the food. Their bite force, incidentally, is the highest of any living animal, up to 3700 pounds per square inch. Jumping is natural for the crocodiles—they hunt that way to snag animals like birds and wallabies that venture too close to the water. Being that close to enormous predators roused some deep, primeval fear in me. To a crocodile, I would make excellent prey. The jumping crocodile tour, needless to say, was very memorable. Our class later had a long and far-ranging discussion on the many types of ecotourism experiences we’d participated in and their costs, benefits, and ethical implications.

One of the crocodiles on the jumping crocodile tour.

The next day, we left for a three-day camping trip in Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks. It was the dry season, and the weather was hot, dry, and sunny. We went hiking and snorkeling (in croc-free swimming holes), saw the breathtaking magnetic and cathedral termite mounds, and learned about geology and Aboriginal cultures. Some of the places we visited were sacred sites of the people who have inhabited the region for more than 65,000 years. One of the rock art paintings we were able to see was of a Tasmanian tiger, an animal that’s been completely extinct for close to a century and extinct in the Kakadu region for thousands of years. But right there on the wall was the preserved memory of a time when Tasmanian tigers still roamed the area.

Me with a stick insect at our campground in Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory. Photo by Letar Jia, another student in the Duke in Australia program this summer.

One of the coolest places we stopped was a rock cut-out along a highway. The stone was striped with zigzagging layers created when it was buried underground at a pressure high enough to fold solid rock. It was formed 1.9 billion years ago, when the earth was “a geologist’s dream,” according to Glass–relatively barren, with no soil, plants, or animals, just microscopic organisms and lots and lots of rock. I was touching 1.9 billion years of history.

We spent the third night at a different campsite. Some of us spotted what seemed to be a large spider in the bathroom, but one of the tour guides informed me that it was actually just the shed skin of a huntsman spider, not the spider itself. I walked around camp introducing people to my “little friend,” but oddly enough, they didn’t seem as delighted as I was.

That night, while we were theoretically sleeping, periodic cacophonies of eerie, wailing screams reverberated through the air. My half-asleep brain was convinced they were from wallabies, but the sound actually came from a bird called the bush stone-curlew or bush thick-knee. The next morning, there was a gecko in the bathroom, and I wasn’t sure my day could possibly get any better. But later that day, we visited a fragment of an ancient rainforest, and there were giant fruit bats practically dripping from the canopy and giant golden orb weaver spider webs strung between trees, and I think that was even better than the bathroom gecko.

A female giant golden orb weaver, with my hand for scale. The tiny, orange spider on her back is the male.

After departing Darwin, we headed to Cape Tribulation, where the Great Barrier Reef meets the Daintree Rainforest—believed to be the oldest rainforest on the planet. Some rainforests, Glass explained, exist because they’re near the equator. But the rainforests in Australia are remnants of ancient rainforests that developed when the continents were arranged very differently and Australia was considerably farther south. Australia’s climate has become more arid over time, but pockets of its ancient rainforests remain intact.

While we were on Cape Tribulation, we had the chance to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef. It was overcast and very windy that day, and the small boat that took us out to the reef turned into a rollercoaster as it slid up and down waves. But windy or not, the reef was gorgeous. We saw sea turtles, a sea cucumber, a small shark, and fishes and corals in endless colors.

We also had the incredible opportunity to hike through the rainforest at night. Of all the amazing things we did, that may have been my favorite. There were huge crickets and spiders, thorny vines called wait-a-whiles (because you’ll be waiting a while if you get stuck on one), and flowering plants that looked like mushrooms. And partway along the boardwalk, Glass spotted a creature so unusual and elusive that he had never seen one before. This, he told us, was probably the rarest animal we’d seen on the whole trip. A velvet worm. It looked a bit like a caterpillar or a centipede at first glance, but velvet worms have an entire phylum all their own. (Caterpillars and centipedes share the Arthropoda phylum, along with all insects, spiders, crustaceans, and various others. Velvet worms are in the Onychophora phylum.) The ancestors of velvet worms are thought to represent a link between arthropods and segmented worms. They are ancient, unique, and rarely seen.

The velvet worm.

Just moments later, Glass announced another incredible find: a peppermint stick. I raced ahead to see it. Earlier that day, I’d seen signs about peppermint stick insects, which excrete a peppermint-scented liquid as a defense mechanism, and I’d been keeping my eyes peeled ever since. The creature had developed a sort of mythical status in my mind; I’d been fantasizing about seeing one but hadn’t actually expected to. But there it was, right in front of us, large and stick-like, its color a blue-green so bright that it almost seemed to glow.

A platypus in a river in Yungaburra.

In Yungaburra, our next-to-last stop, we saw enormous fig trees and gorgeous waterfalls. On our last morning, several of us left the motel around dawn and walked to a nearby trail along a river in search of the platypus and the tree kangaroo, an arboreal kangaroo species. We found both. It was a fitting almost-ending to our trip. Both platypuses and kangaroos seem so iconically Australian. The platypuses slipped in and out of the water, their dark bodies visible even in the low light. The tree kangaroo watched us silently from its perch above us and then slowly began to move elsewhere.

A tree kangaroo in Yungaburra.

Before long, it was time to go home. We spent a couple days in Cairns first, where I saw a shiny, emerald green beetle and a tree positively full of squawking lorikeets. Even in the city, there were bright and beautiful animals. In places like the ones we visited, it is easy to find awe and wonder and beauty everywhere you look. But there are endless treasures here, too, fascinating and beautiful sights that we walk past every day, like the way spiderwebs turn silver in the sunlight, or the gray catbird that eats bright red magnolia fruits in the courtyard in front of my dorm window, or the tiny, bluish purple flowers on the Al Buehler Trail, soft and fuzzy and damp when I brushed my face against them. Duke in Australia was an unforgettable adventure. It was also a reminder to step out of the human bubble and immerse myself in the worlds of other living things—whether here or across the globe.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

One Man’s Death Is Not Another Man’s Science

Geer Cemetary in Durham is one of many burial grounds in America that hold the remains of thousands of Black Americans from the 19th century. There are no records of the people buried there. The process of researching grounds like these as a form of reparations to descendent communities was pioneered by Michael Blakey in the African Burial Ground Project in Lower Manhattan, New York. He is currently the Director of the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William and Mary.

Dr. Michael Blakey. Image courtesy of Library of Virginia Education

On April 4, Blakey visited Duke as a guest of the Franklin Institute of Humanities, the Department of Classical Studies, the Department of International Comparative Studies, and Trinity College. In attendance to his lecture were students of Classical Studies 144: Principles of Archaeology with Alicia Jimenez, International Comparative Studies 283: Death, Burial, and Justice in the Americas with Adam Rosenblatt, and several graduate students by invitation (and me). His presence was clearly highly anticipated.

I initially approached Dr. Jimenez with my interest in bioarchaeology in January as I was planning my Program II application. She invited me to this seminar, and to lunch with Blakey and the graduate students beforehand. I came prepped with questions on osteopenia and hypertrophy, as well as a map of Brightleaf Square so I wouldn’t get lost (I still got lost) and a few dollars cash for parking (they only took card).

Geer Cemetery, Durham, NC. Image Courtesy of Durham in Plain Sight

For those of you who have ever loved the detective fiction heroine Temperance Brennan, Blakey’s work is for you. He is co-chair of the Commission for the Ethical Treatment of Human Remains through the American Anthropological Association. He was claiming the title of bioanthropologist before it was cool. He wrote a guide for the profession called Engaging Descendant Communities, or, more lovingly, The Rubric. Blakey encourages allowing those descendant communities to guide scientists’ research on human remains. He calls us Homo reminiscens, because what makes us “human” may be our affinity for memorializing our dead as much as it may be our large brains (á la Homo sapiens). “Burial is human dignity,” Blakey announced during the seminar, “Dignity is what we do.”

“Ethical code is not law. It is our greatest responsibility.”

Michael Blakey

After all, science has historically been used to justify the unjust. Bioarchaeology is a famous contributor to the field; the pseudoscience of phrenology was upheld until well into the 20th century, and was originally used as “scientific proof” that people of African descent were lesser than Europeans. It was also cited as a justification for displacing Native Americans from their lands.

During lunch, I was struck by Blakey’s cadence. He had a deep, slow voice and spoke with intention. He ordered the giant pretzel. I never asked my questions; instead, I was swept away by the group’s discussion on ethics–a topic I had no open Safari tabs on. I asked instead why a scientist would choose to guide themselves entirely by a non-expert opinion rather than scientific inquiry; would that not hinder discovery?

The scientific method, as you may recall, starts with asking a question. Rather than gracefully including descendent communities after the paper has been written, Blakey urges scientists to only pursue questions about remains that the descendants wish to answer. The science of death should never be self-serving, he noted. There is no purpose to publishing a paper if it is not in the service of the community that provided the subject. A critical reader may notice that The Rubric is not called The Gospel or The Constitution. Rather than a rule of law, it is a guideline. That’s because ethics is based on the respect of self, of craft, and of others. “Ethical code is not law,” Blakey reminds scientists. “It is our greatest responsibility.”

Geer Cemetary has been the subject of Duke research for years now, from a Story+ program to class field trips. Members of ICS, CLST, and FHHI have been in cooperation with Friends of Geer Cemetary to answer such questions about burial conditions–the attempt at dignity granted to Black residents of Durham by their descendants.


Edit: a previous version of this article had incorrectly stated that the Department of African and African American Studies sponsored Michael Blakey’s lecture.

Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

On being MIXED

Chances are, you have not felt betrayed by a Google form. But if you’re part of the 8% of multiracial students at Duke, perhaps you’re familiar.

If you check one box, it feels like you deny your identity as another. It is a constant battle of representation, of feeling a responsibility towards all of your communities while simultaneously feeling an imposter in all of them. There is always the issue of being too white for one group, too brown for another.

Since 2012, every county in the United States has reported a multiracial population. Dr. Sarah Gaither, an assistant professor of psychology & neuroscience at Duke, studies the identity crisis multiracial students face. In 2015, she published “‘Mixed’ Results: Multiracial Research and Identity Explorations” in Current Directions in Psychological Science. And on February 10, she organized a screening of MIXED, a documentary following the struggles and backlash facing mixed-race families. The film’s directors, Caty Borum and Leena Jayaswal of American University, joined the screening and provided a Q&A session for the audience.

Image courtesy of Dan Vahaba


Gaither’s research is featured in the film, as well as Duke SWIRL (Students With Interracial Legacies), a former student organization.

“Multiracials who identify as multiracial actually experience decreased self-esteem when asked to choose only one racial identity,” Gaither notes in her article. Sure enough, the documentary follows America’s slow response to progress. Despite being in the aftermath of our first biracial president, despite it being over 50 years since Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage nationwide, there have only been two U.S. Censuses taken since the Census Bureau allowed more than one race to be checked on official forms. This caused a notable shift; between 2000 and 2010, the number of reported interracial people increased by 32%, likely because of the ability to “claim more than one race” as a legal identity.

Duke’s Undergraduate Student Body, Fall 2022 (Source: https://facts.duke.edu/)


Gaither’s research in the Duke Identity and Diversity Lab pledges to continue this research. She notes interesting extensions of multiracial identities, such as Latinx students and families who are subject to even more confusing checkboxes on aforementioned Google forms (What is your race and ethnicity? Because “Hispanic/Latino” is its own category).

“The process of racial self-identification can be more challenging as racial categories can be complex and/or ambiguous,” Gaither says. She also notes the identity crises genderqueer people face, and how restricting checkboxes can really be.

Image courtesy of Dan Vahaba

The documentary provides the viewer an opportunity to experience the inequities and bigotries that still exist toward multiracial families. Race, after all, is genetically irrelevant. The documentary team gives examples of questions they are often asked:


“Are you the nanny?”
“What is she?”
“Did you adopt those children?”
“Where did they come from?”


And I’ll add a few more, from experience:


“It’ll be two separate checks today?”
“Where do you get that hair from?”
“Is this your aunt?”


The point is: racial divides are projected by outsiders onto mixed families, and it creates a crisis of identity for mixed-race individuals. It is a phenomenon well documented by Gaither, Borum, Jayaswal, and others who have lived it.

Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

Why There Has Never Been Infrastructure ‘Justice for All’

Since coming to Duke nine years ago, I gained the realization that all rural communities are virtually the same… the infrastructure neglect is still the same.”

Catherine Coleman Flowers

Catherine Coleman Flowers is no stranger to action. Since the start of her career, she’s accomplished everything from working as the Vice Chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council to founding the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. An internationally recognized advocate for public health, Flowers has worked tirelessly to improve water and sanitation conditions across rural America.

Pictured above: Catherine Coleman Flowers
Credit: Credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

On February 9th, Duke University students got to hear from Flowers in a powerful seminar sponsored by Trinity College. A Practitioner in Residence at the Nicholas School of the Environment, Flowers discussed her incredible activism journey.

“I became an activist very, very young,” she said. Her family heritage nurtured her love for the environment early on, as well as her home state of Alabama. In high school, she began to read about the sanitation crisis happening in rural Alabama, Lowndes County in particular.

“I learned that poor people (there) were being targeted for arrest because they couldn’t afford sanitation systems,” Flowers said. The poverty rate in this historically Black county is double the national average, and sewage treatment is not provided for many residents. For those who can afford sanitation systems, they are often far from adequate, such as poorly maintained septic tanks. Issues like exposure to tropical parasites and improper installations are rampant throughout the county.

A man in Lowndes County assessing his septic tank. Credit: The Associated Press

“It builds upon the structural inequalities that make sure these areas remain poor,” Flowers said. Across the US, millions of rural areas face the same complications. From places like ‘Cancer Alley’ in New Orleans to the city of Mount Vernon in New York, sanitation systems are failing miserably.

“We saw families that couldn’t live in their houses half the time because of the sewage that was running into their home,” Flowers explained. Unsurprisingly, almost all of the areas facing these issues are home to minority communities. “The narrative used to be, ‘they don’t know how to maintain it,’ but that isn’t true. The technology isn’t working at all.

In November of 2021, Flowers filed the first-ever civil rights complaint against sanitation in Lowndes County. Thanks to her, as well as other prominent community activists, the issue garnered nationwide attention. In less than a year, the county received a $2.1 million grant from the USDA to begin solving the sewage crisis. Similar funding efforts have also been seen in Mount Vernon. “That is an example of what a solution can look like,” Flowers said.

“That’s the kind of power that you have as a Duke student,” Flowers said in closing. With almost one million dollars available for student funding annually and access to one of the greatest networks in the world, Duke students are in a remarkable position to make a change, she said. In North Carolina, counties like Duplin and Halifax are in need of outside help. “Growing up in the computer age, you can bring those skills needed to assist those applying for funds.”

Duke’s Environmental Justice Network

So, what can you do? Above all, Flowers emphasizes the importance of leading from behind. ” Don’t go in the community and try to lead from the front… People from the community need to be involved from the design to the implementation.”

As students, our assistance is needed in the form of support. From assisting with grant applications, to utilizing our network access to spread the word, there are so many ways to get involved. True equity is found not when we speak for the community, but rather when we strengthen the community’s ability to speak for itself.

Click here to get in contact with Ms.Catherine Coleman Flowers, and click here for more information about work you can do in the local community!

Post By Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

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