Duke Research Blog

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

Category: Art Page 1 of 3

Chronicling Migrant Deaths Along the US-Mexico Border

Science, especially social science, is rarely apolitical. Nonetheless, researchers are often hesitant to engage with the political implications of their work. Striving to protect their objective, scientific stance, they leave the discussing and at times the fighting to the politicians and legislators.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason de León is not one of those researchers. Politics is not merely implicated in his work, but rather drives it. De León studies undocumented migration between Mexico and the United States.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León directs the Undocumented Migration Project.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León directs the Undocumented Migration Project.

As director of the Undocumented Migration Project, De León studies what happens to the bodies of migrants crossing the desert to reach the U.S. using “any genre I can steal from,” he told an audience at Duke University on April 5. Using tools from archeology, forensics, photography, and ethnography, de León and his team have been providing novel insights into one of the most urgent political challenges currently facing the nation.

De León acknowledged the political reality of his work immediately by opening his talk with a quote from President Trump about building a “great wall.” However, he was quick to clarify that the problem of missing migrants is not partisan. Rather, it has a long history that he argues started with the 1993 immigration enforcement policy, “Prevention through Deterrence.” This policy’s aim was to redirect illegal immigration to the desert rather than to stop it. Politicians hoped that in the desert, where security is weak and the terrain treacherous, the natural terrain would serve as a border wall. Inherent in this policy is the assumption that migrant life is expandable.

In the wake of this policy, the human smuggling industry in northern Mexico experienced a swift influx and the number of known migrant deaths began to rise. Since the 1990s, over 600 migrant bodies have been recovered from the Sonoran Desert of Arizona where de León conducts his research. Until his team conducted the first forensic experiments on the site, people could only speculate as to what was happening to the bodies of missing loved ones hoping to make it across the border. Now, de León can offer some helpful if heartbreaking data.


De León examines the human consequences of U.S. immigration policy in his book, “The Land of Open Graves”

De León’s archeological method, “desert taphonomy,” examines both the natural and cultural processes that determine what happens to a dead body. Anthropologists studying the body’s decomposition were initially interested only in natural factors like the climate and scavenging animals. Recently, they have realized that the decomposition process is as social as it is natural, and that the beliefs and attitudes of the agents involved affect what happens to human remains. According to this definition, a federal policy that leaves dead bodies to decompose in the Arizona desert is taphonomy, and so is the constellation of social, economic, and political factors that drive people to risk their lives crossing a treacherous, scorching desert on foot.

Guided by this new approach, de León studies social indicators to trace the roots of missing bodies, such as “migrant stations” made up of personal belongings left behind by migrant groups, which he says can at times be too big to analyze. De León and his team document these remnants with the same respect they pay to any traditional archeological trail. Items that many would dismiss as trash, such as gendered items including clothes and hygiene products, can reveal much needed information about the makeup of the migrant groups crossing the desert.

De León argues that human decomposition is a form of political violence, caused by federal policies like Prevention through Deterrence. His passion for his research is clearly not driven by mere intellectual curiosity; he is driven by the immense human tragedy of migrant deaths. He regularly conducts searches for missing migrants that families reach out to him about as a desperate last measure. Even though the missing individuals are often unlikely to be found alive, de León hopes to assuage the trauma of “ambiguous loss,” wherein the lack of verification of death freezes the grief process and makes closure impossible for loved ones.

The multifaceted nature of de León’s work has allowed him to inspire change across diverse realms. He has been impactful not only in academia but also in the policy and public worlds. His book, “The Land of Open Graves,” is accessible and poetic. He has organized multiple art exhibitions that translate his research to educate and empower the public. Through the success of these installations, he has come to realize that exhibition work is “just as valuable as a journal article.”

Backpacks left behind by undocumented immigrants in the exhibition,
“State of Exception.”

Hearing about the lives that de León has touched suggests that perhaps, all researchers should be unafraid to step outside of their labs to not only acknowledge but embrace the complex and critical political implications of their work.

Guest Post by Deniz Ariturk

New Blogger Rebecca Williamson: The Moon and Some Stars

Hello! My name is Rebecca Williamson, and I am a freshman here at Duke University. Coming into college, I plan to major in economics, but that could very well change. As for my interests outside of the classroom, I enjoy singing and theater and am a member of Out of the Blue, one of the all-female a cappella groups here at Duke!

Rebecca Williamson, Duke 2022

Rebecca Williamson, Duke 2022

I fell in love with Duke the second I stepped on campus. I am excited to see what Duke has to offer me, but more importantly, what I can offer to Duke.

My interest in science, specifically astronomy, was piqued at a very young age. By age six, I had not one, but three,  Moon in my Room light up toys (remote controlled models of the Moon that scrolled through the waxing and waning phases of the Moon at the touch of a button) mounted in my bedroom. By nine, I had the entire planetary system (yes, including Pluto) hanging from my ceiling. Though I cannot say that my interests remain with astronomy, it is what first got me invested in science. I have since gained interest in the natural sciences and animal sciences, though every so often I do press some of the buttons on my Moon in my Room remote.

Some random boy imagines he's as cool as six-year-old Rebecca.

Some random boy imagines he’s as cool as six-year-old Rebecca.

My love of writing, however, was spawned by my love of theater. As an active member of my high school’s theater community, I was roped into being a part of, and eventually became the president, of my school’s Cappies Critics team. As a Cappie, I was expected to watch local high school plays and musicals and write critical, holistic reviews of them. This program jump-started my love for writing and helped me to develop my own unique journalistic voice.

solar system mobile. www.luxrysale.comI hope to combine my interest in the natural and animal sciences with my love for writing and chronicle some of the amazing research going on in these fields both on campus and around Durham! I also hope to incorporate my interests in music and theater into my inquiries and document scientific research surrounding music and the arts in the Duke community.

Duke University Research Blog, look out, because here I come!

Post by Rebecca Williamson

Researcher Turns Wood Into Larger-Than-Life Insects

Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio creates larger-than-life insect sculptures. This wooden mantis was exhibited at the Art Science Gallery in Austin, Texas in 2013.

Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio creates larger-than-life insect sculptures. This wooden mantis was exhibited at the Art Science Gallery in Austin, Texas in 2013.

On a recent spring morning, biologist Alejandro Berrio took a break from running genetic analyses on a supercomputer to talk about an unusual passion: creating larger-than-life insect sculptures.

Berrio is a postdoctoral associate in professor Greg Wray’s lab at Duke. He’s also a woodcarver, having exhibited his shoebox-sized models of praying mantises, wasps, crickets and other creatures in museums and galleries in his hometown and in Austin, Texas, where his earned his Ph.D.

The Colombia-born scientist started carving wood in his early teens, when he got interested in model airplanes. He built them out of pieces of lightweight balsa wood that he bought in craft shops.

When he got to college at the University of Antioquia in Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city, he joined an entomology lab. “One of my first introductions to science was watching insects in the lab and drawing them,” Berrio said. “One day I had an ‘aha’ moment and thought: I can make this. I can make an insect with wings the same way I used to make airplanes.”

Beetle carved by Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio.

His first carvings were of mosquitoes — the main insect in his lab — hand carved from soft balsa wood with an X-Acto knife.

Using photographs for reference, he would sketch the insects from different positions before he started carving.

He worked at his kitchen table, shaping the body from balsa wood or basswood. “I might start with a power saw to make the general form, and then with sandpaper until I started getting the shape I wanted,” Berrio said.

He used metal to join and position the segments in the legs and antennae, then set the joints in place with glue.

“People loved them,” Berrio said. “Scientists were like: Oh, I want a fly. I want a beetle. My professors were giving them to their friends. So I started making them for people and selling them.”

Soon Berrio was carving wooden fungi, dragons, turtles, a snail. “Whatever people wanted me to make,” Berrio said.

He earned just enough money to pay for his lunch, or the bus ride to school.

Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio carved this butterfly using balsa wood for the body and legs, and paper for the wings.

His pieces can take anywhere from a week to two months to complete. “This butterfly was the most time-consuming,” he said, pointing to a model with translucent veined wings.

Since moving to Durham in 2016, he has devoted less time to his hobby than he once did. “Last year I made a crab for a friend who studies crustaceans,” Berrio said. “She got married and that was my wedding gift.”

Still no apes, or finches, or prairie voles — all subjects of his current research. “But I’m planning to restart,” Berrio said. “Every time I go home to Colombia I bring back some wood, or my favorite glue, or one of my carving tools.”

Insect sculptures by Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio.

Insect sculptures by Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio.

Explore more of Berrio’s sculpture and photography at https://www.flickr.com/photos/alejoberrio/.

by Robin Smith

by Robin Smith

How a Museum Became a Lab

Encountering and creating art may be some of mankind’s most complex experiences. Art, not just visual but also dancing and singing, requires the brain to understand an object or performance presented to it and then to associate it with memories, facts, and emotions.

A piece in Dario Robleto’s exhibit titled “The Heart’s Knowledge Will Decay” (2014)

In an ongoing experiment, Jose “Pepe” Contreras-Vidal and his team set up in artist Dario Robleto’s exhibit “The Boundary of Life Is Quietly Crossed” at the Menil Collection near downtown Houston. They then asked visitors if they were willing to have their trips through the museum and their brain activities recorded. Robleto’s work was displayed from August 16, 2014 to January 4, 2015. By engaging museum visitors, Contreras-Vidal and Robleto gathered brain activity data while also educating the public, combining research and outreach.

“We need to collect data in a more natural way, beyond the lab” explained Contreras-Vidal, an engineering professor at the University of Houston, during a talk with Robleto sponsored by the Nasher Museum.

More than 3,000 people have participated in this experiment, and the number is growing.

To measure brain activity, the volunteers wear EEG caps which record the electrical impulses that the brain uses for communication. EEG caps are noninvasive because they are just pulled onto the head like swim caps. The caps allow the museum goers to move around freely so Contreras-Vidal can record their natural movements and interactions.

By watching individuals interact with art, Contreras-Vidal and his team can find patterns between their experiences and their brain activity. They also asked the volunteers to reflect on their visit, adding a first person perspective to the experiment. These three sources of data showed them what a young girl’s favorite painting was, how she moved and expressed her reaction to this painting, and how her brain activity reflected this opinion and reaction.

The volunteers can also watch the recordings of their brain signals, giving them an opportunity to ask questions and engage with the science community. For most participants, this is the first time they’ve seen recordings of their brain’s electrical signals. In one trip, these individuals learned about art, science, and how the two can interact. Throughout this entire process, every member of the audience forms a unique opinion and learns something about both the world and themselves as they interact with and make art.

Children with EEG caps explore art.

Contreras-Vidal is especially interested in the gestures people make when exposed to the various stimuli in a museum and hopes to apply this information to robotics. In the future, he wants someone with a robotic arm to not only be able to grab a cup but also to be able to caress it, grip it, or snatch it. For example, you probably can tell if your mom or your best friend is approaching you by their footsteps. Contreras-Vidal wants to restore this level of individuality to people who have prosthetics.

Contreras-Vidal thinks science can benefit art just as much as art can benefit science. Both he and Robleto hope that their research can reduce many artists’ distrust of science and help advance both fields through collaboration.

Post by Lydia Goff

What is a Model?

When you think of the word “model,” what do you think?

As an Economics major, 
the first thing that comes to my mind is a statistical model, modeling phenomena such as the effect of class size on student test scores. A
car connoisseur’s mind might go straight to a model of their favorite vintage Aston
Martin. Someone else studying fashion even might imagine a runway model. The point is, the term “model” is used in popular discourse incredibly frequently, but are we even sure what it implies?

Annabel Wharton, a professor of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke, gave a talk entitled “Defining Models” at the Visualization Friday Forum. The forum is a place “for faculty, staff and students from across the university (and beyond Duke) to share their research involving the development and/or application of visualization methodologies.” Wharton’s goal was to answer the complex question, “what is a model?”

Wharton began the talk by defining the term “model,” knowing that it can often times be rather ambiguous. She stated the observation that models are “a prolific class of things,” from architectural models, to video game models, to runway models. Some of these types of things seem unrelated, but Wharton, throughout her talk, pointed out the similarities between them and ultimately tied them together as all being models.

The word “model” itself has become a heavily loaded term. According to Wharton, the dictionary definition of “model” is 9 columns of text in length. Wharton then stressed that a model “is an autonomous agent.” This implies that models must be independent of the world and from theory, as well as being independent of their makers and consumers. For example, architecture, after it is built, becomes independent of its architect.

Next, Wharton outlined different ways to model. They include modeling iconically, in which the model resembles the actual thing, such as how the video game Assassins Creed models historical architecture. Another way to model is indexically, in which parts of the model are always ordered the same, such as the order of utensils at a traditional place setting. The final way to model is symbolically, in which a model symbolizes the mechanism of what it is modeling, such as in a mathematical equation.

Wharton then discussed the difference between a “strong model” and a “weak model.” A strong model is defined as a model that determines its weak object, such as an architect’s model or a runway model. On the other hand, a “weak model” is a copy that is always less than its archetype, such as a toy car. These different classifications include examples we are all likely aware of, but weren’t able to explicitly classify or differentiate until now.

Wharton finally transitioned to discussing one of her favorite models of all time, a model of the Istanbul Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox Christian Church and later imperial mosque. She detailed how the model that provides the best sense of the building without being there is found in a surprising place, an Assassin’s Creed video game. This model is not only very much resembles the actual Hagia Sophia, but is also an experiential and immersive model. Wharton joked that even better, the model allows explorers to avoid tourists, unlike in the actual Hagia Sophia.

Wharton described why the Assassin’s Creed model is a highly effective agent. Not only does the model closely resemble the actual architecture, but it also engages history by being surrounded by a historical fiction plot. Further, Wharton mentioned how the perceived freedom of the game is illusory, because the course of the game actually limits players’ autonomy with code and algorithms.

After Wharton’s talk, it’s clear that models are definitely “a prolific class of things.” My big takeaway is that so many thing in our everyday lives are models, even if we don’t classify them as such. Duke’s East Campus is a model of the University of Virginia’s campus, subtraction is a model of the loss of an entity, and an academic class is a model of an actual phenomenon in the world. Leaving my first Friday Visualization Forum, I am even more positive that models are powerful, and stretch so far beyond the statistical models in my Economics classes.


By Nina Cervantes

Hospital Music ‘A Reminder That There’s Life’

When William Dawson took over the Performing Arts program at Duke Hospital, he became the first full-time staff Musician in Residence and Semans/Byrd Performing Arts Coordinator. As a teacher, band director and international performer, Dawson understood the effect music could have on one’s mood and emotions. Still, he had a challenging task ahead of him – Dawson had to prove that music could make an impact in a hospital setting.

In the spring of 2014, as part of the larger Arts & Health program at Duke Hospital, the department administered a survey. Staff had the opportunity to reflect on what programs had improved their hospital experience. As it turned out, live music was one of the top patient satisfiers. Armed with the information, Arts & Health chose to expand the Performing Arts program.

The Performing Arts program differs from music therapy, where board certified professionals work one-on-one or in small groups to achieve a personalized goal. Instead, it is composed of Artists in Residence, Performing Arts Volunteers and Hospital Concerts. Throughout the week, professional musicians are assigned to hospital units to visit patients at the bedside. The professional musicians play for relaxation, company, religious services, and special events including birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and the final moments of life.

Performing Arts Volunteers are students and community members who perform in hospital lobbies and concourses. To assess the musicians’ audience, Dawson used a handheld tally counter and noted that on average, 600-800 people pass through the hospital’s heavily trafficked areas per hour. The instrumental music provides an opportunity for a shared connection, he said.

“It’s like a magic trick,” Dawson said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been playing there piano and a person has cried. It’s beautiful – it’s a reminder that there’s life.”

Hospital Concerts are offered periodically by the Artists in Residence and professional organizations. Recognizing the diversity of the hospital staff and patients, Dawson ensures that performers reflect a variety of backgrounds and can cater to a wide audience.

Since becoming coordinator, Dawson has been statistically analyzing the growth of the program, because potential donors and current financial backers would like to see measurable impact. Dawson has the figures: In the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the number of bedside requests increased by 282 percent, from 109 to 416. To match demand, the number of Performing Arts Volunteers increased by 120 percent and 1,156 hours of live music were performed.

In the future, Dawson looks forward to continued program expansion. Additional funding would also enable the Uke in Duke program, a hospital in-patient instructional ukulele program, to expand and serve more patients. With Dawson’s leadership and a dedicated team of professional musicians and volunteers, the Performing Arts program has an undeniable impact.

Post by Ameya Sanyal

Panic in the Poster Session!

For their recent retreat, Regeneration Next tried something a little different for the time-honored poster session.

Rather than simply un-tubing that poster they took to the American Association of Whatever a few months ago, presenters were asked to DRAW their poster fresh and hot on a plain sheet of white paper in 15 minutes, using nothing more than an idea and a couple of markers.

Concerns were shared, shall we say, with the leadership of the regenerative medicine initiative when the rules were announced.

“People are always nervous about something they haven’t tried before,” said Regeneration Next Executive Director Sharlini Sankaran. “There was a lot of anxiety about the new format and how they would explain their research without charts and graphs.”

There was palpable poster panic as the retreat moved to the wide open fifth floor of the Trent Semans Center in the late afternoon. Administrative coordinator Tiffany Casey had spread out a rainbow of brand-new sharpies and the moveable bulletin boards stood in neat, numbered ranks with plain white sheets of giant post-it paper.

After some nervous laughter and a few attempts at color-swapping, the trainees and junior faculty got down to drawing their science on the wobbly tackboards.

And then, it worked! It totally worked. “I think I saw a lot more interactivity and conversation,” Sankaran said.

Valentina Cigliola

A fist-full of colorful sharpies gave Valentina Cigliola a colorful launching point for some good conversations about spinal cord repair, rather than just standing there mutely while visitors read and read and read.

 

Louis-Jan Pilaz

Louis-Jan Pilaz used the entire height of the giant post-it notes to draw a beautifully detailed neuron, with labeled parts explaining how the RNA-binding protein FMRP does some neat tricks during development of the cortex.

 

Delisa Clay

Delisa Clay’s schematics of fruitfly cells having too many chromosomes made it easier to explain. Well, that and maybe a glass of wine.

 

Jamie Garcia

Jamie Garcia used her cell-by-cell familiarity with the zebrafish to make a bold, clear illustration of notochord development and the fish’s amazing powers of self-repair.

 

Lihua Wang

Don’t you think Lihua Wang’s schematic of experimental results is so much more clear than a bunch of panels of tiny text and bar charts?

In the post-retreat survey, Sankaran said people either absolutely loved the draw-your-poster or hated it, but the Love group was much larger.

“Those who hated it felt they couldn’t represent data accurately with hand-drawn charts and graphs,” Sankaran said. “Or that their artistic skills were ‘being judged’.”

A few folks also pointed out that the drawing approach might work against people with a disability of some sort – a concern Sankaran said they will try to address next time.

There WILL be a next time, she added. “I had a few trainees come up to me to say they weren’t sure how it was going to go, but then they said they had fun!”

Post and pix by Karl Leif Bates, whose hand-drawn poster on working with the news office contained no data and was largely ignored.

Library’s Halloween Exhibit Fascinates and Thrills

Research is not always for the faint of heart.

scary doll_Duke Library

Screamfest V combed through centuries of Rubenstein materials to find the very spookiest of artifacts

At least, that’s what Rubenstein Library seemed to be saying this Halloween with the fifth installment of its sometimes freaky, always fascinating “Screamfest” exhibition. With everything from centuries-old demonology textbooks, to tarot cards, to Duke-based parapsychology studies, Screamfest V took a dive into the deep end of the research Duke has gathered throughout its long history.

There’s a lot to unpack about this exhibit, but one of the most unsettling parts has to be the 1949 written exchange between Duke parapsychologist Joseph Rhine and Lutheran Reverend Duther Schulze, speaking about a boy they thought could be demonically possessed.

“Now he has visions of the devil and goes into a trance and speaks a strange language,” Duther wrote.

Anything about that sound familiar? If so, that might be because this case was the basis for the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. (And people say research isn’t cool!)

The Rubenstein also exhibited a pack of cards used by Rhine’s parapsychology lab to test for extrasensory perception. Inscribed with vaguely arcane symbols, one of these “Zener cards” would be flipped over by a researcher behind a screen, and a test subject on the other side would attempt to “sense” what card the researcher displayed.

Zener cards for ESP

A pack of “Zener cards” Duke researchers once used to test for ESP

Although the results of this test were never replicated outside of Duke and are today widely considered debunked, Rhine’s research did create a stir in some circles at the time. One of the most interesting things about this exhibit, in fact, was the way it showed how much methods and topics in science have changed over time.

A 1726 publication of the book Sadducismus triumphatus: or, A full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions, for example, was loaded with supernatural “research” and “findings” every bit as dense and serious as the title would suggest. The section this tome was opened to bore this subheading: “Proving partly by Holy Scripture, partly by a choice Collection of Modern Relations, the Real EXISTENCE of Apparitions, Spirits, & Witches.”

A similar book titled The Discoverie of Witchcraft, was also on display—only this one was printed over two centuries later, in 1930.

A Depression-era miniature of the Duke mascot, somewhat worse for wear.

Other historical gems the exhibit offered included an a threadbare ‘blue devil’ doll from the ‘30s; a book made up of a lengthy collection of newspaper clippings following the case of Lizzie Borden, a reported axe murderer from the 1890s; and an ad for the 1844 “Life Preserving Coffin … for use in doubtful cases of death.”

It’s not every day research will leave the casual viewer quaking in their boots, but Screamfest V was quick to live up to its name. Covering a broad swath of Duke materials from several centuries, this exhibit successfully pulled off vibes of education, spookiness, and Halloween fun, all at the same time.

Post by Daniel Egitto

Sizing Up Hollywood's Gender Gap

DURHAM, N.C. — A mere seven-plus decades after she first appeared in comic books in the early 1940s, Wonder Woman finally has her own movie.

In the two months since it premiered, the film has brought in more than $785 million worldwide, making it the highest grossing movie of the summer.

But if Hollywood has seen a number of recent hits with strong female leads, from “Wonder Woman” and “Atomic Blonde” to “Hidden Figures,” it doesn’t signal a change in how women are depicted on screen — at least not yet.

Those are the conclusions of three students who spent ten weeks this summer compiling and analyzing data on women’s roles in American film, through the Data+ summer research program.

The team relied on a measure called the Bechdel test, first depicted by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985.

Bechdel test

The “Bechdel test” asks whether a movie features at least two women who talk to each other about anything besides a man. Surprisingly, a lot of films fail. Art by Srravya [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

To pass the Bechdel test, a movie must satisfy three basic requirements: it must have at least two named women in it, they must talk to each other, and their conversation must be about something other than a man.

It’s a low bar. The female characters don’t have to have power, or purpose, or buck gender stereotypes.

Even a movie in which two women only speak to each other briefly in one scene, about nail polish — as was the case with “American Hustle” —  gets a passing grade.

And yet more than 40 percent of all U.S. films fail.

The team used data from the bechdeltest.com website, a user-compiled database of over 7,000 movies where volunteers rate films based on the Bechdel criteria. The number of criteria a film passes adds up to its Bechdel score.

“Spider Man,” “The Jungle Book,” “Star Trek Beyond” and “The Hobbit” all fail by at least one of the criteria.

Films are more likely to pass today than they were in the 1970s, according to a 2014 study by FiveThirtyEight, the data journalism site created by Nate Silver.

The authors of that study analyzed 1,794 movies released between 1970 and 2013. They found that the number of passing films rose steadily from 1970 to 1995 but then began to stall.

In the past two decades, the proportion of passing films hasn’t budged.

Since the mid-1990s, the proportion of films that pass the Bechdel test has flatlined at about 50 percent.

Since the mid-1990s, the proportion of films that pass the Bechdel test has flatlined at about 50 percent.

The Duke team was also able to obtain data from a 2016 study of the gender breakdown of movie dialogue in roughly 2,000 screenplays.

Men played two out of three top speaking roles in more than 80 percent of films, according to that study.

Using data from the screenplay study, the students plotted the relationship between a movie’s Bechdel score and the number of words spoken by female characters. Perhaps not surprisingly, films with higher Bechdel scores were also more likely to achieve gender parity in terms of speaking roles.

“The Bechdel test doesn’t really tell you if a film is feminist,” but it’s a good indicator of how much women speak, said team member Sammy Garland, a Duke sophomore majoring in statistics and Chinese.

Previous studies suggest that men do twice as much talking in most films — a proportion that has remained largely unchanged since 1995. The reason, researchers say, is not because male characters are more talkative individually, but because there are simply more male roles.

“To close the gap of speaking time, we just need more female characters,” said team member Selen Berkman, a sophomore majoring in math and computer science.

Achieving that, they say, ultimately comes down to who writes the script and chooses the cast.

The team did a network analysis of patterns of collaboration among 10,000 directors, writers and producers. Two people are joined whenever they worked together on the same movie. The 13 most influential and well-connected people in the American film industry were all men, whose films had average Bechdel scores ranging from 1.5 to 2.6 — meaning no top producer is regularly making films that pass the Bechdel test.

“What this tells us is there is no one big influential producer who is moving the needle. We have no champion,” Garland said.

Men and women were equally represented in fewer than 10 percent of production crews.

But assembling a more gender-balanced production team in the early stages of a film can make a difference, research shows. Films with more women in top production roles have female characters who speak more too.

“To better represent women on screen you need more women behind the scenes,” Garland said.

Dollar for dollar, making an effort to close the Hollywood gender gap can mean better returns at the box office too. Films that pass the Bechdel test earn $2.68 for every dollar spent, compared with $2.45 for films that fail — a 23-cent better return on investment, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Other versions of the Bechdel test have been proposed to measure race and gender in film more broadly. The advantage of analyzing the Bechdel data is that thousands of films have already been scored, said English major and Data+ team member Aaron VanSteinberg.

“We tried to watch a movie a week, but we just didn’t have time to watch thousands of movies,” VanSteinberg said.

A new report on diversity in Hollywood from the University of Southern California suggests the same lack of progress is true for other groups as well. In nearly 900 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2016, disabled, Latino and LGBTQ characters were consistently underrepresented relative to their makeup in the U.S. population.

Berkman, Garland and VanSteinberg were among more than 70 students selected for the 2017 Data+ program, which included data-driven projects on photojournalism, art restoration, public policy and more.

They presented their work at the Data+ Final Symposium on July 28 in Gross Hall.

Data+ is sponsored by Bass Connections, the Information Initiative at Duke, the Social Science Research Institute, the departments of mathematics and statistical science and MEDx. 

Writing by Robin Smith; video by Lauren Mueller and Summer Dunsmore

Students Share Research Journeys at Bass Connections Showcase

From the highlands of north central Peru to high schools in North Carolina, student researchers in Duke’s Bass Connections program are gathering data in all sorts of unique places.

As the school year winds down, they packed into Duke’s Scharf Hall last week to hear one another’s stories.

Students and faculty gathered in Scharf Hall to learn about each other’s research at this year’s Bass Connections showcase. Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke Photography.

The Bass Connections program brings together interdisciplinary teams of undergraduates, graduate students and professors to tackle big questions in research. This year’s showcase, which featured poster presentations and five “lightning talks,” was the first to include teams spanning all five of the program’s diverse themes: Brain and Society; Information, Society and Culture; Global Health; Education and Human Development; and Energy.

“The students wanted an opportunity to learn from one another about what they had been working on across all the different themes over the course of the year,” said Lori Bennear, associate professor of environmental economics and policy at the Nicholas School, during the opening remarks.

Students seized the chance, eagerly perusing peers’ posters and gathering for standing-room-only viewings of other team’s talks.

The different investigations took students from rural areas of Peru, where teams interviewed local residents to better understand the transmission of deadly diseases like malaria and leishmaniasis, to the North Carolina Museum of Art, where mathematicians and engineers worked side-by-side with artists to restore paintings.

Machine learning algorithms created by the Energy Data Analytics Lab can pick out buildings from a satellite image and estimate their energy consumption. Image courtesy Hoël Wiesner.

Students in the Energy Data Analytics Lab didn’t have to look much farther than their smart phones for the data they needed to better understand energy use.

“Here you can see a satellite image, very similar to one you can find on Google maps,” said Eric Peshkin, a junior mathematics major, as he showed an aerial photo of an urban area featuring buildings and a highway. “The question is how can this be useful to us as researchers?”

With the help of new machine-learning algorithms, images like these could soon give researchers oodles of valuable information about energy consumption, Peshkin said.

“For example, what if we could pick out buildings and estimate their energy usage on a per-building level?” said Hoël Wiesner, a second year master’s student at the Nicholas School. “There is not really a good data set for this out there because utilities that do have this information tend to keep it private for commercial reasons.”

The lab has had success developing algorithms that can estimate the size and location of solar panels from aerial photos. Peshkin and Wiesner described how they are now creating new algorithms that can first identify the size and locations of buildings in satellite imagery, and then estimate their energy usage. These tools could provide a quick and easy way to evaluate the total energy needs in any neighborhood, town or city in the U.S. or around the world.

“It’s not just that we can take one city, say Norfolk, Virginia, and estimate the buildings there. If you give us Reno, Tuscaloosa, Las Vegas, Pheonix — my hometown — you can absolutely get the per-building energy estimations,” Peshkin said. “And what that means is that policy makers will be more informed, NGOs will have the ability to best service their community, and more efficient, more accurate energy policy can be implemented.”

Some students’ research took them to the sidelines of local sports fields. Joost Op’t Eynde, a master’s student in biomedical engineering, described how he and his colleagues on a Brain and Society team are working with high school and youth football leagues to sort out what exactly happens to the brain during a high-impact sports game.

While a particularly nasty hit to the head might cause clear symptoms that can be diagnosed as a concussion, the accumulation of lesser impacts over the course of a game or season may also affect the brain. Eynde and his team are developing a set of tools to monitor both these impacts and their effects.

A standing-room only crowd listened to a team present on their work “Tackling Concussions.” Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke Photography.

“We talk about inputs and outputs — what happens, and what are the results,” Eynde said. “For the inputs, we want to actually see when somebody gets hit, how they get hit, what kinds of things they experience, and what is going on in the head. And the output is we want to look at a way to assess objectively.”

The tools include surveys to estimate how often a player is impacted, an in-ear accelerometer called the DASHR that measures the intensity of jostles to the head, and tests of players’ performance on eye-tracking tasks.

“Right now we are looking on the scale of a season, maybe two seasons,” Eynde said. “What we would like to do in the future is actually follow some of these students throughout their career and get the full data for four years or however long they are involved in the program, and find out more of the long-term effects of what they experience.”

Kara J. Manke, PhD

Post by Kara Manke

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