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

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Keeping the Aging Brain Connected With Words and Music

Sticky post

In an era of seemingly endless panaceas for age-based mental decline, navigating through the clutter can be a considerable challenge.

However, a team of Duke researchers, led by cognitive neuroscientist Edna Andrews, PhD, think they may have found a robust and long-term solution to countering this decline and preventing pathologies in an aging brain. Their approach does not require an invasive procedure or some pharmacological intervention, just a good ear, some sheet music, and maybe an instrument or two.

Dr. Edna Andrews, pictured in 2017. (Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography)

In early 2021, Andrews and her team published one of the first studies to look at musicianship’s impact in building cognitive brain reserve. Cognitive brain reserve, simply put, is a way to qualify the resilience of the brain in the face of various pathologies. High levels of cognitive reserve can help stave off dementia, Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis for years on end. These levels are quantified through structural measurements of gray matter and white matter in the brain. The white matter may be thought of as the insulated wiring that helps different areas of the brain communicate.

In this particular study, Andrews’ team focused on measurements of white matter integrity through an advanced MRI technique known as diffusion tensor imaging, to see what shape it is in.

Previous neuroimaging studies have revealed that normal aging leads to a decrease in white matter integrity across the brain. Over the past fifteen years, however, researchers have found that complex sensory-motor activities may be able to slow down and even reverse the loss of white matter integrity. The two most robust examples of complex sensory-motor activities are multilingualism and musicianship.

Andrews has long been fascinated by the brain and languages. In 2014, she published one of the seminal texts in the field of cognitive neurolinguistics where she laid the groundwork for a new neuroscience model of language. Around the same time, she published the first and to-date only longitudinal fMRI study of second language acquisition. Her findings, built upon decades of research in cognitive neuroscience and linguistics, served as the foundation for her popular FOCUS course: Neuroscience/Human Language.

Dr. Andrews’ 2014 book. Published by Cambridge University Press

In more recent years, she has shifted her research focus to understanding the impact of musicianship on cognitive brain reserve. Invigorated by her lived experience as a professional musician and composer, she wanted to see whether lifelong musicianship could increase white matter integrity as one ages. She and her team hypothesized that musicianship would increase white matter integrity in certain fiber tracts related to the act of music-making

To accomplish this goal, she and her team scanned the brains of eight different musicians ranging in age from 20 years to 67 years old. These musicians dedicated an average of three hours per day to practice and had gained years’ worth of performance experience. After participants were placed into the MRI machine, the researchers used diffusion tensor imaging to calculate fractional antisotropy (FA) values for certain white matter fiber tracts. A higher FA value meant higher integrity and, consequently, higher cognitive brain reserve. Andrews and her team chose to observe FA values in two fiber tracts, the superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF) and the uncinate fasciculus (UF), based on their relevance to musicianship in previous studies.

Relative location of subcortical white matter fiber tracts (lateral view). Image from Wikipedia

Previous studies of the two fiber tracts in non-musicians found that their integrity decreased with age. In other words, the older the participants, the lower their white matter integrity in these regions. After analyzing the anisotropy values via linear regression, they observed a clear positive correlation between age and fractional anisotropy in both fiber tracts. These trends were visible in both tracts of both the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Such an observation substantiated their hypothesis, suggesting that highly proficient musicianship can increase cognitive brain reserve as one ages.

These findings expand the existing literature of lifestyle changes that can improve brain health beyond diet and exercise. Though more demanding, neurological changes resulting from the acquisition and maintenance of language and music capabilities have the potential to endure longer into the life cycle.

Andrews is one of the strongest advocates of lifelong learning, not solely for the satisfaction it brings about, but also for the tangible impact it can have on cognitive brain reserve. Picking up a new language or a new instrument should not be pursuits confined to the young child.

It appears, then, that the kindest way to treat the brain is to throw something new at it. A little bit of practice couldn’t hurt either.

Post by Vibhav Nandagiri, Class of 2025

“Rainforest Radio”: Linguistic Ecology in the Western Amazon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Will the Humanities Save the World?

Lorenzo Gritti

The bad news about the energy transition, according to Dr. Matthew Huber, is that it’s not happening. At least, not at the scale we need it to. A June report stated that the share of fossil fuels in the world’s total energy mix is still about 80%, as it has been for several decades. “We still live in a system fueled by fossil fuels,” Huber said. 

Matthew Huber
Jennifer Wenzel

On October 18, Huber, author of Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital and a professor at Syracuse University, joined Dr. Imre Szeman, author of On Petrocultures: Globalization, Culture, and Energy and professor at the University of Waterloo, and Dr. Jennifer Wenzel, author of The Disposition of Nature: Environmental Crisis and World Literature and professor at Columbia University.

Moderated by Dr. Ranjana Khanna, professor and director of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute here at Duke, the panel discussion “What Can the Humanities Contribute to the Global Energy Transition?” explored the potential of humanities fields to help supplement perspectives offered by the sciences, teaching us about new ways of living for a greener world.

Imre Szeman

Khanna posed the titular question: what do the panelists think that the humanities have to contribute to the energy transition?

Huber responded that in dealing with climate disaster, the “critical issue of our time,” there’s a civic responsibility to engage with the “public and political struggle” for change.

Humanities scholars excel in the art of persuasion and argumentation, and they can use that in public forms, like the Op-Ed and social media. Whereas the public conversation is skewed towards economics and engineering, humanities scholars can emphasize the equally important political and cultural barriers toward the energy transition. 

Huber also called on history scholars to help recover the “deleted history” of what is politically possible.

“After four decades of neoliberalism we’ve forgotten what the public sector can actually do,” Huber said, “but when we remember the Soviet-style planned economy during World War II, and the New Deal, we recover that these large mass scale transformations have happened, and are possible,” Huber said. He also lamented that the social movements of today’s Left have become “atomized, neutralized, and largely ineffective” such that “students don’t believe in large-scale social change anymore.” With public history, activists can show how and why struggles of abolition have won in the past, and how that could be applied to the struggle for carbon abolition. 

As the Climate Critic in the Green Party of Canada’s Shadow Cabinet, Dr. Imre Szeman drafted the Green Party’s proposal for the energy transition. He says that upon seeing the recommendation to end all production of fossil fuels, journalists asked Szeman, “Is this realistic? Here? Now?” They seemed to view such a change as “impossible — even though they might want it.”

Szeman argued that whether climate solutions are considered ‘realistic’ isn’t so much a question of cost, but of “our ability to conceptualize another way of being in the world,” which is where humanities fields come into play. He then posed a series of questions, including “What do we love about our current habits and behaviors? Who is culpable for the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? How did we get here, and what does this say about our ability to get somewhere else?” He said that the role of the humanities in the energy transition is to answer all of these questions — and to remind us of the need to ask them in the first place.

Wenzel agreed, explaining that energy humanities can help us examine the literary and cultural narratives that shape our experience. She explained that fossil fuels enable a “chain of ease” wherein the primary mode of thinking about fossil fuels in everyday life is not thinking at all. She discussed the oil inventory activity she does with her students, where they account for the ubiquitous significance of oil in their lives. We develop an “embodied attachment” to the things that oil makes possible — the smoothness of plastic, the speed of auto, the smell of a butane stove. This leads us to an “impasse: we know where we stand, but we’re unable or unwilling to take action at the scale we know we need to.” 

Wenzel explained that the oil inventory was actually invented by the oil industry with an insidious intention — to get consumers to consider the indispensability of petroleum products in their lives “to produce wonder and appreciation.” She showed the audience an Exxon commercial, in which scenes of vast, interconnected energy grids play across the screen as a soothing voice tell us, “you don’t need to think about the energy that makes our lives possible. Because we do.

Wenzel emphasized that the effect of rhetoric like Exxon’s is to “ensure passivity.” The lesson? When we take stock of the impact of oil on our lives, how we use that information matters most. Climate activists must reclaim the oil inventory to “disrupt habits of mind” rather than entrench them.

Khanna noted that one of the humanities’ core methods is a “revelatory gesture of critique,” and asked the panelists what they thought about “moving past that initial gesture, toward some broader consensus for change.” 

Wenzel said that doing the work of the oil inventory is powerful, but “not the last move.” We must make other moves, and in terms of thinking about what we might do otherwise, we must take care to be “forward thinking, but deeply, critically, historically informed.”

Huber said that we need to interrogate the “politics that attach oil to life,” because it’s a strategy of moving politics away from work, production, and who decides its conditions. Production today feels invisible — it’s offshore, outsourced — so that we fail to ask questions about who’s controlling it, and to what effect. He called upon the 1930s, when a “radical politics of production was on the table,” and said that climate-conscious humanities scholars need to work to recover this history.

Szeman had one “next move,” in the words of Wenzel: to realize that oil companies in the US are private, unlike in much of the rest of the world. “There’s a decision made very early on” about how and in what quantities oil is to be used — a decision that could be amenable to change.

Khanna opened the panel to questions. One audience member asked about how to advocate for an energy transition in light of the fact that capitalism is ultimately responsible for much of the status quo and the damage it has caused. How can humanities scholars critique the status quo without critiquing capitalism to the point of suspicion from would-be supporters?

Szeman emphasized the need for recognition that there are some things that one can do in the political sphere, and some things one can’t. Even though the Green Party falls squarely on the political left, “we don’t explicitly criticize capitalism right off the bat, because that doesn’t seem like the winning position.” It’s important to give voice to discussions about change “to the extent possible within the official political sphere.”

Wenzel told the audience about giving a talk on energy humanities at the Pipeline Safety Trust conference. She had to “stand in front of the oil industry” — regulators, landowners, executives — which meant “thinking about which values and assumptions to share.” By establishing credibility, she could “make conversations about this problem, which implicates all of us, possible” — despite their different perspectives.

Huber contended that when the enemy is as abstract as the quasi-global system of capitalism, it can “induce paralysis.” He’s “not sure we can absolish capitalism on the time scale” necessary for the energy transition. He quipped that the earth is not dying, it’s being killed, and “those who are killing it have names and addresses.” Those people are the target, he said — just as in the abolition of slavery, when the target of struggle was the slave owning class, another oligarchical power representing about 1% of the population. Although he supports a systemic critique of capitalism, right now “we need to be more concrete. These people have names and addresses,” he reiterated.

Another audience member asked about how to “break down the concepts of beauty and pleasure” that support the current oil regime.

Huber discussed the need for “low-carbon luxury” and an investment in open green space as part of any Green New Deal. Climate politics has often been about “shame, fear, guilt, sacrifice,” he said, and “we’re not going to win on that.” A beautiful, pleasurable vision of the future is what’s needed to win people over.

Wenzel identified the role of literature in “collecting and borrowing” ideas of beauty, arguing that beauty is always constructed. To those who view renewable energy, like wind and solar, as an eyesore, Wenzel posed the question: “Are oil spills ‘beautiful’?” (Take a glimpse.)

Someone asked a question about science fiction’s ability to “dream futures into being” — what should humanities scholars aspire to read and write? 

Wenzel said that there are many ways to think about the future, and that apocalyptic renditions of science fiction are essentially “practicing for possible bad futures.” Huber agreed, stating that apocalyptic visions can be galvanizing — but there must be a positive vision that wins people over (he pointed to AOC’s “Message From the Future”).

Szeman said that utopian narratives tend to say more about the viewpoint by which a fictional world is considered a utopia than a “prescriptive way to get there,” and suggested that humanities scholars interested in fiction might consider creating more of the latter.

Revolutionary ideas were discussed during the two hours, and panelists acknowledged that humanities fields can’t do all of this work alone. 

Wenzel told the audience about a discussion she had with an economist from the Energy Policy Center. She’d said, “we’re interested in the non-technological obstacles to transition and non-technological tools to foster public demand for these changes. We want to understand why people remain so attached to the world that fossil fuels have created.” The economist said, “Right. We call that demand-side management.”

The audience laughed, understanding the frustration that often results from the disparate methodologies of science and humanities fields. Wenzel said she “felt a bit deflated” — but also learned a word she could use in future collaborations with economists and policymakers. 

The humanities have many valuable contributions to the energy transition: recovering histories, disrupting the status quo, crafting new narratives. But what’s important right now is communicating this. Wenzel left us with an instruction: “We need to learn to build bridges across different disciplines.”

This event was organized by the Energy Humanities Working Group in partnership with the Duke University Energy Initiative, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. Duke students or faculty members can join the Energy Humanities Working Group by contacting Dr. Tom Cinq-Mars (tom.cinq.mars@duke.edu).

Post by Zella Hanson

If Homer Had a Guitar

Most ninth-graders in the U.S. read The Odyssey for English class. Not that many sing it, though. 

Since 2001, Joe Goodkin has traveled the U.S. performing his retelling of The Odyssey. “These poems were meant to be felt, not studied, and I think my work can add that element back into how we encounter them today,” he says. 

Last week, he premiered his new work: an American Blues re-telling of The Iliad. 

The Duke Classical Studies Department hosted Goodkin to perform this piece on Friday, October 22nd in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens (The weather being lovely, he remarked: “Thank you, Zeus. I must have performed the right number of hecatombs”).

The Blues of Achilles re-tells The Iliad from eleven different perspectives. “This is what I envisioned these songs being,” Goodkin confessed to his audience. “Us doing exactly what they did 3,000 years ago— sitting around, listening to stories of the Trojan War.”

He’s referring to the fact that epic poems were written to be sung as performances rather than read as stories (Although if you’re like me and your only prior knowledge of the Trojan War came from Madeline Miller, you might be confused). Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad lose some of their musicality when translated into English and read off of a page, but Goodkin aims to re-invigorate those stories. 

Goodkin’s work is a form of artistic research used to better understand Greek culture. He gives the example of The Singer of Tales, a book about the importance of oral tradition as a form of research. Written in 1960 by Harvard professor Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales focuses on illiterate oral poets of former Yugoslavia and compares their methods to Homeric epic. Cool, right? While it seems a bit far-fetched, Goodkin is actually doing something similar.

“While I don’t expect my work to be as important or scholarly as that book,” Goodkin notes, “I think [my work] can be a way for modern audiences to treat the epic poems as experiences rather than just artifacts.”

Joe Goodkin performed in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens on Friday, Oct. 22.

Homer’s works were integral to Greek life and values. Storytelling, to the Greeks, was the main form of broad communication and cultural unity. Modern organizations like the International Storytelling Center recognize the importance of oral literature and its effect on our cultural understanding.

We tell stories all day every day (heck, you’re even reading one right now!); Goodkin, and other storytellers, use this link to connect with their audience and convey an understanding of other cultures and viewpoints. Goodkin’s The Blues of Achilles reflects many attributes of the original, as well. For one, the chronology of the story is reversed. “I wanted my audience to have the same sort of idea a Greek audience would have about the end of the story. You have different things in play when the audience knows the end of the story. Even thinking about time in The Iliad, it’s very elastic and funky. So I wanted to recreate some of that disorientation,” he explained. 

The Blues of Achilles is a blues composition— and blues music, like epic poems, is a culture-specific art form. In explaining his interpretations, Goodkin said: “I thought, ‘If Homer’s Iliad is “The Wrath of Achilles”, I have to interpret that line in a different way, like a poet would.’” (Author’s note: Remind you of anything?) “For one, ‘blues’ is in his name— áchos laós means the grief of the people.”

In re-telling these epics, Goodkin is not only bringing another perspective to the classics scene, but connecting it to American culture. “Blues music is our oral tradition. It was composed and came to be as an art form largely the same way the Greek epic did, by these bards-slash-singer-songwriters,” he explains. 

Homer retellings, interpretations, and translations differ across time and perspective, but they all intend to revive the poems for their audience. Whether or not we see the connections to our lives, these myths originated many archetypes we are familiar with (Just ask Meg Ryan). In the end, Greek myths are all human stories about tragedy, war, love, loss, and morality, and they are as relevant today as they were 3,000 years ago.

If you’re interested in working with the Gardens for your class or research, contact kati.henderson@duke.edu or visit this link.

Post by Olivia Ares, Class 2025

New Blogger Shariar Vaez-Ghaemi: Arts and Artificial Intelligence

Hi! My name is Shariar. My friends usually pronounce that as Shaw-Ree-Awr, and my parents pronounce it as a Share-Ee-Awr, but feel free to mentally process my name as “Sher-Rye-Eer,” “Shor-yor-ior-ior-ior-ior,” or whatever phonetic concoction your heart desires. I always tell people that there’s no right way to interpret language, especially if you’re an AI (which you might be).

Speaking of AI, I’m excited to study statistics and mathematics at Duke! This dream was born out of my high school research internship with New York Times bestselling author Jonah Berger, through which I immersed myself in the applications of machine learning to the social sciences. Since Dr. Berger and I completed our ML-guided study of the social psychology of communicative language, I’ve injected statistical learning techniques into my investigations of political science, finance, and even fantasy football.

Unwinding in the orchestra room after a performance

When I’m not cramped behind a Jupyter Notebook or re-reading a particularly long research abstract for the fourth time, I’m often pursuing a completely different interest: the creative arts. I’m an orchestral clarinetist and quasi-jazz pianist by training, but my proudest artistic endeavours have involved cinema. During high school, I wrote and directed three short films, including a post-apocalyptic dystopian comedy and a silent rendition of the epic poem “Epopeya de la Gitana.”

I often get asked whether there’s any bridge between machine learning and the creative arts*, to which the answer is yes! In fact, as part of my entry project for Duke-based developer team Apollo Endeavours, I created a statistical language model that writes original poetry. Wandering
Mind, as I call the system, is just one example of the many ways that artificial intelligence can do what we once considered exclusively-human tasks. The program isn’t quite as talented as Frost or Dickinson, but it’s much better at writing poetry than I am.

In a movie production (I’m the one wearing a Totoro onesie)

I look forward to presenting invigorating research topics to blog readers for the next year or more. Though machine learning is my scientific expertise, my investigations could transcend all boundaries of discipline, so you may see me passionately explaining biology experiments, environmental studies, or even macroeconomic forecasts. Go Blue Devils!

(* In truth, I almost never get asked this question by real people unless I say, “You know, there’s actually a connection between machine learning and arts.”)

By Shariar Vaez-Ghaemi, Class of 2025

New Blogger Camila Cordero: Renaissance First-Year

My name is Camila Cordero, and for those who know Spanish: yes, my last name does mean lamb. I’m a Hispanic female, born and raised in Miami, Florida. Living in Miami, one can think of many stereotypes (don’t pretend). You have the terrible traffic, the apocalyptic heat, and the international sensation, “Despacito” played everywhere.

Having a civil engineer as a father and an agriculture specialist as a mother, I became the best of both worlds as someone who now seeks to pursue a degree in Biomedical Engineering, interested in following pre-health as well.

To say I have a ‘passion’ in the sciences would be an understatement. Ever since I was a young person, I have always been curious about the world around me; questioning why things happen, how things occur, and what composes of things. It came to no surprise that in elementary school, I was already competing in multiple science competitions, broadening my range of knowledge. At first, I was drawn into the world of cartography and mechanical engineering– drawing profiles and building Rube Goldberg machines at the young age of 11. Yet, in just a span of a few years, I continued my journey into the unknowns of science, later figuring out that my true calling falls in the world of biology.

But don’t think I cut myself short there! Having such an excitement to be taught and taking every opportunity to acquire a new skill, I can see myself in the future as a Renaissance woman. Just as easy as it is for me to sketch you a beautiful drawing, I can also figure skate on ice, talk to you in Spanish or Greek, and change a NASCAR stock car tire. From here, who knows what else I will do in these next four years at Duke!

Writing for the Duke Research Blog, I seek to learn yet another ability: to write. Having written short stories for writing competitions and speeches in school, I seek to perfect this skill through the blog. Not only will I practice my writing, but I will continue to explore the world of science that I love so deeply with the help of others. I hope that with my writing, I will be able to reach out to the public and teach them about the scientific research that can impact the world for the better.

Post by Camila Cordero, Class of 2025

Cemetery, Community, Classroom: Collaborating to Honor the Dead

Open Durham

The institutional neglect and indignity faced by many African Americans during and after the Jim Crow era in the South didn’t end when their lives did. In a panel hosted by the Duke Office of Durham & Community Affairs on Sept. 10, a community leader, Duke professor, and undergraduate student discussed some of the work they are doing to combat the marginalization of Durham’s deceased in Geer Cemetery, two miles from Duke’s campus. 

Debra Taylor Gonzalez-Garcia, President, Friends of Geer Cemetery

Founded on land purchased from Frederick and Polly Geer by John O’Daniel, Nelson Mitchell, and Willie Moore in 1877, Geer Cemetery is the final resting place for over 3000 of Durham’s African American citizens. As Maplewood Cemetery was segregated, from 1877 until the opening of Beechwood cemetery in 1924 Geer served as the only cemetery for the African American dead. Lacking public funding and under fire from the health department for overcrowding, Geer Cemetery closed in the 1930s and, in the absence of a plan for its continued upkeep, fell into a state of disrepair

President of Friends of Geer Cemetery Debra Taylor Gonzalez-Garcia provided a brief history of Geer Cemetery. 

The nonprofit Friends of Geer Cemetery was formed in 2003 by “concerned citizens and neighbors” and has worked to “restore the cemetery’s grounds and research its histories” under their mission statement “restore, reclaim, respect.” According to Gonzalez-Garcia, work consists of maintaining the cemetery grounds, repairing headstones, writing life stories, and advocating for recognition. 

Friends of Geer Cemetery has accomplished a lot in terms of restoration: in 2004 the cemetery was unrecognizable, with broken headstones, overgrowth, and sunken burials. Today, with the help of Keep Durham Beautiful, Preservation Durham, and other volunteers, the entire cemetery can now be easily viewed.

The organization also continues to work tirelessly toward their other objectives, reclamation and respect. By mining local records, research volunteers have created a database which includes approximately 1,651 burials, but efforts are ongoing. 

Gonzalez-Garcia expressed excitement about the organization receiving grant funding for an archaeological survey. “[The survey] will help us to map out burials, because currently, there is no map,” Gonzalez-Garcia said. “We aren’t sure where people are buried.” 

The community leader discussed how efforts to reclaim Geer Cemetery bring about questions that reckon with white supremacy in general. “We’re not told stories of the African Americans who built Durham,” Gonzalez-Garcia said. “Why do we know so much about Washington Duke, and nothing of Augustus Shepard? Why should Maplewood still exist and not Geer Cemetery?” 

Adam Rosenblatt

Associate Professor of the Practice in International Comparative Studies Adam Rosenblatt expressed his interest in how care for the dead is “bound up with human rights and social justice.” This interest is personal: he has his own graveless ancestors who disappeared in the Holocaust. He expressed his passion for educating others about “places of mourning in our midst” through “community-engaged” scholarship.

Along with Gonzalez-Garcia, Rosenblatt sponsored a Story+ program at Duke entitled Geer Cemetery: Labor, Dignity, and Practices of Freedom in an African American Burial Ground. With the help of sponsors and a graduate mentor, Duke undergraduates Nyrobi Manuel, Kerry Rork, and Huiyin Zhou researched the cemetery closely in order to “uncover the stories of ordinary citizens and add these stories back into the historic narrative about Geer.” The researchers produced three unique, interactive digital projects which will contribute to the Friends of Geer Cemetery’s online platform for education and outreach. 

Rosenblatt discussed one challenge the Story+ engaged with: What really constitutes a human subject? The IRB’s definition doesn’t include the dead; there’s no IRB protocols for researching the dead and their stories. Many archives disappear entirely, or are fragmented.

Nyrobi Manuel

Nyrobi Manuel, a Duke undergraduate, was one of Rosenblatt and Golzalez-Garcia’s mentees. Manuel took Rosenblatt’s course “Death, Burial, and Justice in the Americas” and says the course inspired her to dig deeper into African American death practices. Through the Story+, Manuel researched John C. Scarborough, who established the fifth-oldest Black-owned funeral home in the country. She produced a project entitled “Scarborough and Hargett Funeral Home: Dignified Death and Compassion in the Black Community.” 

Manuel discussed her findings. Many funeral directors became important figures in their community, and John C. Scarborough was no different. A philanthropist and important community member, he helped to establish Scarborough Nursery School, North Carolina’s oldest licensed nursery school.

What’s always drawn Gonzalez-Garcia to Geer Cemetery is its “quiet beauty” and sense of connection. Though her ancestors are buried in Virginia, where she’s from, Geer Cemetery seeks to tell stories of African Americans through “emancipation and reconstruction: throughout history.” Geer is special because it seeks to tell the story of her “blood relatives” while also celebrating the history of Durham, which, she said fondly, is “my community now.”

A Virtual Stroll through the 2021 Bass Connections Showcase

Posters, presentations, and formalwear: despite the challenge of a virtual environment, this year’s annual Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Showcase still represented the same exciting scholarship and collegiality as it has in years past.

While individuals could no longer walk around to see each of this year’s 70+ teams present in person, they were instead able to navigate a virtual hall with “floors” designated for certain teams. With labels on each virtual table, it almost mimicked the freedom of leisurely strolls down a hall lined with posters, stopping at what catches your eye. Three sessions were held over Thursday, April 15 and Friday, April 16.

The beginning of each session featured five-minute “lightning” presentations by a diverse set of teams, representing the range of research that students and faculty participated in.  One such presentation was lead by Juhi Dattani ’22 (NCSU) and Annie Roberts ’21, who covered research generated by their team, “Regenerative Grazing to Mitigate Climate Change.” The team was an inter-institutional project bringing together UNC, NCCU, NCSU, and Duke. And as they aptly summarized, “It’s not the cow, but how.” Cows can help fight instead of contribute to the climate crisis, through utilizing regenerative grazing – which is an indigenous practice that has been around for hundreds of years – to improve soil health and boost plant growth.

The team during the 2019-2020 year, pre-COVID, on the Triangle Land Conservancy’s Williamson Preserve.

Research is not just relegated to the physical sciences. Brittany Forniotis, a PhD candidate ’26, and Emma Rand ’22 represented the team “Mapping History: Seeing Premodern Cartography through GIS and Gaming.” Their team was as interdisciplinary as it gets, drawing from the skills of individuals in everything from art history to geography to computer science. They posited that mapmakers use features of map to argue how people should see the world, not necessarily how they saw the world. To defend this hypothesis, they annotated maps to record and categorize data and even converted maps to 3D to make them virtual, explorable worlds. The work of this team enabled the launch of Sandcastle, which aims to “enable researchers to visualize non-cartesian, premodern images of places in a comparative environment that resembles the gestural, malleable one used by medieval and early modern cartographers and artists.”

The work of the team added to a project launch of Sandcastle.

Sophie Hurewitz (T ’22) and Elizabeth Jones (MPP ’22) presented on behalf of the “North Carolina Early Childhood Action Plan: Evidence-based Policy Solutions”, Their recommendations for alleviating childhood food insecurity in North Carolina as outlined by the North Carolina Early Childhood Action Plan will provide a roadmap for NC Integrated Care for Kids (NC InCK) to consider certain policy changes.

One of the most remarkable parts of Bass Connections is how it opens doors for students to pursue avenues and opportunities that they may have never been exposed to otherwise. Hurewitz said that “Being a part of this team led me and a team member to apply for the 2021 Bass Connections Student Research Award, which we were ultimately awarded to study the barriers and facilitators to early childhood diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) among Black and Latinx children in North Carolina.” In addition to the award, Hurewitz and fellow team member Ainsley Buck were able to present their team’s research at the APA Region IV Annual Meeting.

The 2019-2020 team, pre-COVID.

From gene therapy for Alzheimer’s disease to power grids on the African continent, this year’s teams represented a wide range of research and collaboration. Erica Langan ’22, a member of the team “REGAIN: Roadmap for Evaluating Goals in Advanced Illness Navigation”, said that “For me, Bass Connections has been an extraordinary way to dive into interdisciplinary research. It’s an environment where I can bring my existing skills and knowledge to the table and also learn and grow in new ways.” This interdisciplinary thinking is a hallmark of not just Bass Connections, but Duke as a research institution, and it’s clear that this spirit is alive and well, even virtually.

Post by Meghna Datta

Are You Funnier Than a Duke Postdoc?

Odds are, probably not.

On Saturday, April 10th, Duke Postdoc Comedy Club hosted Are We There Yet?, a virtual comedy showcase featuring Triangle-based comedians. The show was moderated by Bo Ma and featured six comics: Tori Grace Nichols, Amy Mora, Josh Rosenstein, Nat Davis, Yutian Feng, and headliner Isatu Kamara (in order of appearance). 

The virtual comedy club was sponsored by the Duke Office of Research, The Graduate School, and the Division of Student Affairs, who collectively scraped together a whopping $15 to pay each of the up-and-coming comedians, giving the audience their first laugh of the night. Let’s see $8 billion endowment… subtract the product of 15 times 6… carry the one… wait, how many zeroes is that again? Good one, Duke. 

Given that the show was free, I definitely felt like I got a lot more than I paid for.

I was shocked at how many of the performers had prior comedy experience in the community; almost all of the comics had extensive performance resumes both in Durham and outside of the Triangle area. Prevalent themes of the night included jokes related to gender and racial identity, COVID-induced weight gains (dubbed by Amy Mora as the “quarantine fifteen”), and the less than prolific employment prospects currently awaiting postdoctoral students.

Yutian Feng’s setup for Are We There Yet?. Tropical paradise or kitchen island? Guess we’ll never know…

One of the highlights of the show was radiology postdoc Yutian Feng’s set. A self-described PhD, which he clarified stood for “permanent head damage,” his hobbies included identifying as a straight white male “because it’s the only way to get elected in this country,” and conversing with Siri on his Apple Watch, which he has programmed to congratulate him with a salty profanity every time he finishes exercising. After watching his set, all I can think to say is congratulations (salty profanity) — being that funny must’ve been quite the workout! 

Isatu Kamara and Jimmy Carter (vaguely visible on her left).

The show’s headliner was Isatu Kamara, an up-and-coming Durham-based comedian who tuned in alongside her cat, Jimmy Carter.

Kamara’s set revolved around her identities, particularly as a “stay-at-home daughter” and non-rich person, lamenting about the recent invasion of “gentrification scooters” and the sunroom epidemic in Durham.

Future plans? Kamara hopes to upgrade from the shopping cart that they have at the grocery store specifically for single people. You know, the one that’s “half of the size of the Happy Family™ shopping cart” and only has room for “a pack of White Claws, a bottle of wine, and some cat food?” A very ambitious goal but, hey, we’re rooting for you, Isatu. 

Though the fruits of their research careers remain unknown, the comedic future seems promising for the Postdoc Comedy Club’s self-described “two to three” members. After all, as Yutian aptly pointed out during his set, they all have the opportunity to move “from the most underpaid job to the second most underpaid job” — a drop in the bucket when compared to their masses of student debt and cure their similarly high degrees of self-loathing, but hey, at least they got fifteen bucks?

Post by Rebecca Williamson

Students Dance Their Way Out of “AI Bias”

Martin Brooke is no ordinary Engineering professor at Duke University. He teaches computer scientists, engineers, and technology nerds how to dance.

Brooke co-teaches Performance and Technology, an interactive course where students create performance projects and discuss theoretical and historical implications of technologies in performance. In a unique partnership with Thomas DeFrantz, a professor of African and African American Studies and Dance students will design a technology based on “heart,” for example, in order to understand how human expression is embedded in technology. Two weeks later, they’ll interact with motion-sensing, robotic trees that give hugs; and 3D printed hearts that detect colors and match people, sort of like a robotic tinder.

Thomas DeFrantz (left) and Martin Brooke  watch their students perform in the Performance and Technology course .

Brooke loves that this class is fun and interactive, but more importantly he loves that this class teaches students how to consider people’s emotions, facial expressions, cultural differences, cultural similarities and interactions when designing new technologies.

Human interface is when a computerized program or device takes input from humans — like an image of a face — and gives an output — like unlocking a phone. In order for these devices to understand human interface, the programmer must first understand how humans express themselves. This means that scientists, programmers, and engineers need to understand a particular school of learning: the humanities. “There are very, very few scientists who do human interface research,” Brooke said.

The students designed a robotic “Tinder” that changes colors when it detects a match.

Brooke also mentioned the importance of understanding human expressions and interactions in order to limit computer bias. Computer bias occurs when a programmer’s prejudiced opinions of others are transferred into the computer products they design. For example, many recent studies have proven that facial recognition software inaccurately identifies black individuals when searching for suspects of a criminal case.

“It turns out one of the biggest problems with technology today is human interface,” Brooke said. “Microsoft found out that they had a motion sensitive Artificial Intelligence that tended to say women, [more often than men], were angry.”  Brooke said he didn’t consider the importance of incorporating the arts and humanities into engineering before coming to Duke. He suggested that it can be uncomfortable for some scientists to think and express themselves artistically. “[When] technologists [take Performance and Technology], for example, they are terrified of the performance aspects of it. We have some video of a guy saying, ‘I didn’t realize I was going to have to perform.’ Yeah, that’s what we were actually quite worried about, but in the end, he’s there in the video, doing slow motion running on stage — fully involved, actually performing, and really enjoying it.

Duke has a strong initiative to promote arts and humanities inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Brooke plans to bring Bass Connections, a research program that focuses on public outreach and cross-disciplinary work, to his Performance and Technology class before the end of the semester to demonstrate bias through a program he calls AI Bias In the Age of a Technical Elite.  

“You give it someone’s name and it will come up with a movie title, their role, and a synopsis of the movie,” Brooke said. “When I put in my name, which is an English name, it said that the movie I would be in is about a little boy who lives in the English countryside who turns into a monster and terrorizes the town.” This program shows even something as simple as a name can have so much stigma attached to it.

Bass Connections Students working on technology and engineering projects. (From the official Duke page for Bass Connections.)

Brooke’s hope is that his class teaches students to think about technology and human interface. “Hopefully that’s a real benefit to them when they get out actually designing products.”

Guest post by Jordan Anderson, a masters student in Science & Society

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