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

Category: Art Page 1 of 6

Anyone Can Be a “Math Person”

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Dr. Francis Su, a mathematician and professor at Harvey Mudd College and the author of “Mathematics for Human Flourishing,” wants you to know that math can be beautiful. As these “infinitely quartered” squares show, 1/4 + 1/(42) + 1/(43) + … = 1/3. Image attribution: Tdadamemd, via Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Francis Su, Ph.D., visited Duke to talk about math. He began by talking about art.

Su, a mathematician and professor at Harvey Mudd College, displayed “Hope,” an 1886 painting by George Frederic Watts. He asked the audience to look at it, really look at it, and think about what’s happening in the painting. At first glance, it shows a blindfolded woman holding a wooden object. She seems to be in pain. But the more time we spend looking, the more we notice. We might notice that there’s a single star above her. We might notice that the wooden object is a lyre with only one string left attached. We might notice, too, that the woman is plucking that final string and straining to hear its music. 

If we take the time to explore the history of the painting, we might learn that Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about the same painting in a sermon. Su quoted a line from that sermon: “Who has not had to face the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?” We find beauty in art, and often we find it relatable as well. Art invites us to look closer, to wonder, to feel, to ask questions, to imagine.

“Why,” Su asks then, “don’t we approach mathematics the way that we approach art?”

Professor Francis Su’s book, “Mathematics for Human Flourishing.”

Whether we consider ourselves “math people” or not, we rarely if ever hear mathematics discussed as an affirmation of human virtues and desires—love, beauty, truth, the “expectation of enchantment.” Su wants to change that. In his book “Mathematics for Human Flourishing” and in his talk at Duke, he envisions mathematics as beautiful, inclusive, and accessible to anyone.

Along with the painting “Hope,” Su’s first slide shows a quote by Simone Weil: “Every being cries out silently to be read differently.” Simone Weil, according to Su, was a “French religious mystic” and “widely revered philosopher,” but she also had a deep interest in math. Her older brother, André Weil, was an influential mathematician whose mathematical achievements often overshadowed her own. In a letter to a friend published posthumously in the book “Waiting for God,” Simone Weil wrote: “I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides.” Su sometimes wonders how Simone’s relationship to mathematics would have been different if André had not been her brother. Again, “Every being cries out silently to be read differently.” According to Su, when Simone Weil speaks of “reading” someone, she means “to interpret or make a judgment about them.”

Su has a friend, Christopher Jackson, who is an inmate in a high-security prison, serving a thirty-two year sentence for involvement in armed robberies as a teenager. When you think about people who do math, Su asks, would you think of Chris?  “We create societal norms about who does math,” and Chris doesn’t fit those norms. And yet he has been studying mathematics for years. After studying algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus while in prison, he sent a letter to Su requesting help in furthering his mathematics education. The two men still correspond regularly, and Chris is now studying topology and other branches of mathematics.

“Every being cries out silently to be read differently.”

Why do math in the first place? Just as you can take your car to a mechanic without fully understanding how it works yourself, we might think of math as “only for the elite few” or perhaps as “a means to an end,” a tool “to make you ‘college and career ready.’” Su sees it differently. He views math in terms of human flourishing, “a wholeness of being and doing.” He points to three words from other languages: eudaemonia, a Greek term for “the overarching good in life”; shalom, a Hebrew word often used as a greeting and roughly translated as “peace”; and salaam, an Arabic word with a similar meaning to shalom.

The pattern on Romanesco broccoli is a fractal, common in both math and nature. Image credit: Francis Su

“What attracts me to music,” Su says, “isn’t playing scales over and over again.” But once you “experience a symphony,” you might see the value in playing scales. Can we learn to think of math the same way? Here, Su quoted mathematician Olga Taussky-Todd: “The yearning for and the satisfaction gained from mathematical insight brings the subject near to art.”

Beauty and awe probably aren’t the first words that come to mind when most of us think of math, but Su believes math can unlock “transcendent beauty.” He references a quote by C.S. Lewis: “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” That is what math at its best can do for us. It can help us see the big picture and realize that we’re “just scratching the surface of something really profound.”

“Math is not a single ‘ability,’” Su says. “In reality, math is a multi-dimensional set of virtues.” When learning or teaching math, we often focus more on skills like recalling facts and algorithms, factoring polynomials, or taking a derivative. But Su believes more important lessons are at play: virtues like persistence, creativity, a thirst for deep knowledge, and what he calls the expectation of enchantment. And, he says, employers are often much more interested in virtues than in skills. “If you want to be really practical about this—and I don’t, with mathematics, but if you do—then it’s actually the virtues that are more important than the skills,” Su says.

One basic human desire that Su believes math can help fulfill is the desire for truth, which, in turn, can help build virtues like a thirst for deep knowledge and the ability to think for oneself, which can help us figure out what’s true instead of just blindly trusting authorities. “Truth is under attack,” Su says. “Misinformation is everywhere.” Su wants to teach his students “to think, to be ‘that person who doesn’t need to look at the Ikea instructions.’” But he also wants them to view math as more than just a means to an end. “It’s my responsibility to help my students remember the beauty” in math and to understand that their dignity as human beings isn’t dependent on their grades.

Along with truth and beauty, he believes math can and should bring opportunities for exploration and discovery. “My role isn’t to be a teacher,” he says. “My role is to be a co-explorer.” He recalls his own excitement when he first saw a Menger cube, or Menger sponge, cut along its diagonal. The resulting cross-section is beautiful and, yes, enchanting. “What would it look like for classrooms to be like that?” During the pandemic, Su started adding more reflection-focused questions to his exams, questions like “Consider one mathematical idea from the course that you have found beautiful, and explain why it is beautiful to you.” Even more traditional math questions can be phrased in an “exploratory” way. Su gives the example of a question that asks students to make two rectangles, one with a bigger perimeter and one with a bigger area.

A visual representation of Nicomachus’s Theorem.
Image from Cmglee, via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Another desire or virtue important in the field of mathematics is justice. Su wants math to be accessible to all, but not everyone has had positive experiences with math or feels like they belong there. As an analogy, Su talks about receiving dishes from a “secret menu” when visiting certain Chinese restaurants with friends who are fluent in Chinese. When he goes there on his own and requests the “secret menu,” however, he is sometimes turned away or told that he wouldn’t like those dishes. “Are people side-by-side in the same restaurant having different experiences” in math, too? “Who are you to say they do or don’t belong in mathematics?”

Even Su himself hasn’t always had wholly positive experiences in math. One of his professors once told him he didn’t “have what it takes to become a successful mathematician,” and he almost quit his Ph.D. program. Instead, he switched to a different advisor who had encouraged him to stick with it. Meanwhile, he surrounded himself with people who could remind him why he loved math. Math as a field can be competitive, but “if you think of mathematics as human flourishing… then that’s not a zero-sum game anymore.” 

In Su’s words, “we’re all math teachers” because “we all pass on attitudes about math to others.” He says studies show that parents can pass on “math anxiety” to their kids. But Su encourages people to “believe that you and everyone can flourish in mathematics.” Simone Weil. Christopher Jackson. And you. 

Who will you read differently?

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

How Art Reflected Child Mortality in the 20th Century

How does parenting change when infant and child mortality affects every family in society? Recent history may provide an answer. For the entirety of the 19th Century, child mortality was ubiquitous. In the year 1880, nearly 35% of children born in the United States passed away in their first five years. The medical literature that explores the common diseases and public health inadequacies, though expansive, often fails to address the central humanistic questions surrounding such widespread death. How were these children mourned? How did grieving families move on? And how has this mourning changed in the context of the past hundred years of medical advancement?

These guiding questions drove Dr. Perri Klass, Professor of Journalism and Pediatrics at NYU, to pen her recently published book, “The Best Medicine: How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future.” A distinguished clinician, author, and medical historian, Klass explored prominent art and literary works from this era of high infant and child mortality at the recent Trent Humanities in Medicine Lecture at the Duke School of Medicine, titled “One Vacant Chair: Remembering Children”.

Dr. Perri Klass, MD

Throughout the lecture, Klass guided the audience through famous portraits, poems, and prose produced in the 18th Century that memorialized children who had died at a young age. Perhaps the most famous fictional account of childhood death in the 19th century emerged in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The emotionally wrenching death scene of young Eva, who succumbed to tuberculosis, struck a chord with virtually all those who read the novel. Published in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin would go on to be reproduced in theaters across the country for several decades, the death scene becoming a ubiquitous anchor that often brought the audience to tears. Klass further described how Beecher Stowe drew from her personal experience, the death of her son Charlie from cholera only a few years prior to the writing of the book, to create this powerful literary scene.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Published in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Beecher Stowe was not the only author whose personal experience impacted their art. Charles Dickens, deeply impacted by the death of his children, had created a slew of sentimental yet mortal child characters in his stories. One of the most prominent examples, young Nell from “The Old Curiosity Shop,” was published in installments and developed a strong following. Dickens ended the series with the death of twelve-year old Nell, much to the outrage of international readers.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that parents chose to memorialize their deceased children through literature and art. Wealthy families would often contract famous portrait artists were often contracted to depict their dead children. Some, including the Rockefellers and the Stanfords, channeled the deaths of their children and grandchildren into resourced academic institutions.

For grief to drive philanthropy and art is not a new phenomenon, but the sources of grief that drive such artistic and financial overtures today have changed considerably. Klass sought to bridge this knowledge gap and pull closer the history to which society has the privilege of being oblivious. Maybe, even, it would even inform how we cope with the mortality of young people today.

“How do we situate ourselves in a world where infant and child mortality is so low?” Klass asked at the beginning of her presentation.

The past does not reveal one clear answer, but it does provide a tapestry of options, many lost in our modern collective memory, for mourning, for celebrating, and for memorializing.

Post by Vibhav Nandagiri, Class of 2025

What is Biblical Research, Anyway? The Answer Might Surprise You

This is part one of a two-part series; next week we will dive into the nitty-gritty of biblical research, but for now, we’re focusing on what biblical research is and why it matters.

Image courtesy of Duke Divinity School

To the uninitiated, “biblical research” might not conjure up images of dancing, or analyzing films, or studying engineering. But meet Maximillion Whelan. A third-year M.Div. student at Duke, Whelan runs a website for film aficionados focusing on analyzing movie scenes and was recently published in Quarterly Review of Film and Video for an article on theology and film. He notes: “Biblical research sheds light on how everyday activities effectively shape history and are also shaped by history. By “zooming in,” delving into the details and contexts, biblical research enables us to simultaneously “zoom out” – to see what things we are taking for granted, where our readings have led us, and how we take our readings into other spheres of life.”

Image courtesy of Nicole Kallson (as part of her course Introduction to Theology and the Arts)

Or take Divinity School student Nicole Kallson. She is pursuing a Master’s of Theological Studies with a Certificate in Theology and the Arts.

“As a theologian and dancer, I use my background in dance to assist my understanding of the Bible.” Kallson explains. “I tend to focus on ideas of embodiment, beauty, and inter- and intra- personal relationships.”

Both students—along with countless other Blue Devils and other mascot identities—use their studies as a lens through which to examine themselves and their passions. And isn’t that what we emphasize so clearly at Duke—the interdisciplinary, interpersonal, interfaith, international, interwoven identities of people, places, and things? Is that not what research is all about in the end? Perhaps the purpose of biblical research is not as foreign to us as we may think at first.

Degree-seekers may come from expertise in literature, classical studies, practical faith, or other backgrounds that may easily come to mind. But they also come from natural sciences, physical sciences, political science, art and media studies, creative writing, engineering, medicine, sociology, public policy, economics, and so much more. And each of these students is applying their research and understanding of the Bible to their understanding of the world at large, seeking to become better, more intentional academics in the process.

The new Dean of Duke Divinity School was born and raised in Puerto Rico; he has prayed with Pope Francis and presented him with writings on interfaith dialogues. He also has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in mechanical engineering.

Dean Edgardo Colon-Emeric moderated a symposium on the Bible last Friday, October 11, 2022 through the Karsh Alumni Center Forever Learning Institute (part of the Policing Pages series, which Jakaiyah Franklin also wrote about for the Blog!).

“It might seem odd to have a series focused on the Bible as a banned book, given that it’s the most polished book in history,” he opened. He gave an example further; for a time in recent Guatemalan history, possession of the Bible was persecuted as a means of targeting perceived Communist empathizers. Even within Christain communities, he explains, there has been discourse among devotees of certain translations and versions—not all of them amenable.

The event also featured Brent Strawn of the Duke Divinity School and Jennifer Knust from Trinity College of Arts & Sciences Department of Religious Studies.

Jennifer Knust during the Forever Learning Institute’s Policing Pages presentation on the Bible

“The survival of the New Testament as a text and a collection is a theological and practical achievement,” noted Knust. “It is repeatedly refreshed in response to new circumstances, even as remains of past approaches continue to shape what can happen next.”

It is because of the differing opinions of so many people over such a long time that we have different faiths, and biblical research uses the lens of Christianity to evaluate that phenomenon.

Knust continues: “Today we know that there are over 5,000 manuscript copies of the New Testament, none of which are identical in every particular.”

She herself was a member of the board of the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition—the most recent scholarly translation of the Bible, published in 2021. She elaborated on her feelings on the dynamics and fluidity of the text, describing a constant push and pull of desire and tradition. Perhaps researchers, in the present, past, or future, may desire to change words, meanings, or uses of the Bible, but they are contradicted by a tradition dictated by the populous.

Biblical research seeks to answer questions about the Bible— and by extension, the fruitfulness of humanity. The sustainability of religious texts of all kinds is a testament (pun intended) to the success of human minds compounded over thousands of years.

A 1611 copy of the Authorized Version Knust uses as an example of different Protestant translations.

On this PeopleMover-style tour of biblical research, I hope we’ve taken away some key points:

Firstly, the work of many biblical researchers is deeply personal. We’ve discovered through this that the work of any researcher in any field has the potential to be deeply personal.

Additionally, we learned that the interdisciplinary reach of biblical studies works inversely; students may turn to biblical research from other subjects to enhance their work, or they may even turn to other subjects to enhance their work in biblical research.

And finally, we arrive at our destination; next week we’ll talk more in-depth about what biblical research entails and meet some key players in those conversations.

Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

Meet New Blogger Alex: Pipetting Writer from Coastal SC

When I write about myself, it always reads like a poorly crafted match.com zinger. Boring, awkward, and something along the lines of:

I’m Alex. Aquarius. Love dogs, classic rock, old NCIS episodes. $1 Goodwill paperback thrillers, marked with “Happiest 53rd Richard! All my love, Janet” and “8/17/2005, Saw this and thought of you!” And I like to ask myself why Steven King’s Carrie conjures up thoughts of said person? Who’s Richard? How’s Janet?

I also love coffee. And tea. Peppermint, of course. Irish breakfast, sure. Chamomile, why not. But I think I really just like collecting mugs — hearty ceramics, dainty porcelain, hand-painted, non-dishwashable, chipped, stained monstrosities. It might be a problem though (as I don’t have much shelf space).

Favorite genre of film? It’s got to be anything in the Meg Ryan romcom cinematic universe. Or the Brat Pack coming-of-age cannon. Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire, About Last Night, Pretty in Pink. Really just the Judd Nelson je ne sais quoi.

My dog and I celebrating her 11th birthday this summer!

I think my 2nd grade superlative was “Wormiest Bookworm,” whatever that means. That might’ve been the year I read every Nancy Drew book in the library and founded the neighborhood’s first and only detective business. I do wish I could say I’ve Jules Verne’d the world in 80 days — circumnavigating all five nebulous oceans, frozen Arctic plains, Swiss peaks, and continental slopes; Phileas Fogging my way through the Mediterranean, aperitivo in hand. But I’m a bit unworldly in the geographic sense. I’ve only been out of the country once to boat up next to Niagara Falls, wearing a thin, plastic poncho and an I <3 Canada tee (though I’ve possibly made it a second time to Canada after getting lost on the circumference of a lake in Vermont).

I’ve only ever lived in Charleston, SC, never straying too far from its labyrinth of intercostals and waterways, its Theseus-like shrimpers, gliding into port. At Duke, I spend half my time majoring in molecular/cellular biology and the other lamenting my landlockedness, missing Charleston’s temperate sea breeze.

Beach in the middle of winter

Growing up there was all briny inlet and Waffle House, midnight bacon, butter pats, cordgrass, molting blue crab, churches on every street corner and in every denomination, weak coffee and greasy hash brown breakfast, September hurricanes, salt, cicadas, farm stands packed with peaches, a once-in-a-hundred year 6-inch snowfall that closed school for two weeks.

On Saturdays, I sharktooth-hunted with my sisters in pluff mud plots now developed (strangers tend to find the smell of the marsh pungent, but I think it’s character building). Fished for red drum. Searched for pearls in half-mooned oyster mouths. Kayaked down creeks.

Charleston’s a literary city, or so I’ve always heard. I think Edgar Allen Poe’s ghost haunts a cobble-stoned alley downtown or something like that. And if not an alley then a quaint B&B, its porch bearing creaky rocking chairs and purple coneflower. I went to an arts-specialized middle and high school for creative writing, wrote some bad poetry in my formative years and a couple of questionable short films, then went to college and somehow fell into the field of cell bio and now I spend a decent chunk of my free time researching genetic heart disease in a campus lab. Feeding cardiomyocytes via gentle pipette like they’re sea monkeys.

I like to picture the act of writing and that of science as similar — fraternal twins or first cousins — and I don’t think it a coincidence that early philosophers were our first physicians, mathematicians, physicists, chemists, etc. Both fields challenge us to pose questions about our world, about its inhabitants, its oddities, its nuances. We just go about answering them differently.

For this reason, I’m incredibly excited to join Duke’s Research Blog, to write about science and innovation, to poeticize protein structures or to search for lyricism in neuronal action potentials the way a deep sea troller searches for the elusive giant squid. I just think there’s something so wonderful about learning new things, cradling little curiosities that often lead nowhere, and doing so through an accessible, enjoyable medium.

Post by Alex Clifford, Class of 2024

Expanding the SCOPE of Medical Education

It may be hard to put your finger on it, but Duke often allows students to connect their classes to something more personal.

The university’s emphasis on interdisciplinary education is a major initiative that colors students’ academic experiences. While there are many examples of these connections between people, classes, fields, and departments, few so tangibly represent those connections like The SCOPES Project, which connects arts and humanities to medical education at Duke.

Beneath the Surface by Mihir Patel, 2022. Image Courtesy of SCOPES.

Art and medicine can exist in entirely different worlds. They can appeal to different people and tell different stories. But why be simple when you can be, well… stunning? They can be integrated to form something powerful, and that’s precisely what SCOPES leadership members Isa DeLaura, Raluca Gosman, Mason Seely, David Stevens, and Lindsay Olson aimed to do. 

“It is encouraging as an upperclassman who previously participated in this program to see rising students continue the tradition of incorporating the humanities into medical practice,” Mason Seeley says. The generational aspect of the project seems to contribute to its personality; participants bring their own perspectives to their work only to walk away with dozens more. 

“Having a creative outlet has helped me process interactions with patients and the difficulties of the profession, and celebrate happy moments as well,” says Isa DeLaura.

“The goal is to give artists creative freedom to explore their relationships with their patients with whatever medium and in whatever style works best for them. As such, every year the feel is entirely based on the decisions of the artists.”

Isa DeLaura, MS3+

David Stevens insists that the artists “resist… forces of depersonalization in compelling and beautiful ways.”

The project is inspired and supported by yet another interdisciplinary Duke initiative called APPLE (Appreciating Patient Perspectives through Longitudinal Encounters), which connects medical students with patients living with chronic illnesses. The artists/medical students/empaths-in-training then attended multiple creative workshops and developed art pieces to reflect their patients’ personal experiences. But this year’s 6th annual SCOPES exhibition looks a bit different from past years’ (which are conveniently available online for your viewing pleasure).

Having attended many an art opening myself, I am unashamed to say that much of my enjoyment comes from the cheeseplates (and the excitement in the air, but that’s besides the point). Some exhibitions opt for a traditional charcuterie, some marked Kirkland Signature and others displayed on a handmade butcherblock. The point of fingerfoods is to encourage the attendees to stand up, walk around, and interact with the masses. But it also encourages attendees to “just stop by,” making the affair all the less intimate.

Following limitations on group gatherings Duke enforced during COVID, the SCOPES team decided to apply their newfangled interdisciplinary/revolutionary/innovative thinking to the art opening itself: They held a banquet. 

“I loved the way this turned out,” says DeLaura. “It was very personal and made for great discussion and comradery.” 

Fences, Rivers, Walls by Taylor Yoder, 2022. Image Courtesy of SCOPES.

“SCOPES has provided an opportunity to reflect on my experiences as a first-year medical student while also exploring new ways to combine various art forms to create my vision,” says Taylor Yoder, who created Fences, Rivers, Walls, pictured above. “I hope to continue shooting film throughout my medical education and career.”

I was particularly (although wrongfully) surprised about the variety in the exhibit. While the artists attended the same workshops and worked with patients through the same program, they took radically different approaches to their creations. Esme Trahair, a second-year medical student, was a humanities major in undergrad. Her piece combines historical perspectives with modern (although antiquated) mechanisms, emphasizing “the importance of remembering and learning from historical, outdated medical teachings.”

For the Record by Esme Trahair, 2022. Image Courtesy of SCOPES.

The work features a variety of perspectives, but also some clear motifs that could be key takeaways for future medical providers. Like Yoder, artist Kreager Taber explores the patient’s value of “home.” Exploring these motifs could allow for more personal, “upstream” healthcare. 

This year’s SCOPES exhibition is held in the Mars Gallery in the Duke University Hospital Concourse. It is an initiative of the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities & History of Medicine at the Duke University School of Medicine. It will be on display August 9-September 29, and available for viewing online at this link. 

P.S. If you are an MS1 student interested in participating in SCOPES, I have a link for you!

Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

A Fond Farewell for Our Three Senior Bloggers

It’s May! Time for our 2022 Duke graduates to endure Pomp and Circumstance on repeat, shed a tear, and then take wing. Always bittersweet for those of us who work with students.

This year, the Duke Research Blog celebrates the graduation of three outstanding student-bloggers. This class produced some real gems and we will be greatly diminished by their commencement.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is IMG_1940.jpg
Anna Gotskind in the Galapagos, 2018

Anna Gotskind blogged for us all four years, after growing up in Chicago.

Most memorably, Anna took us along when she spent the summer of 2019 at an archaeology dig in Italy.

Her other topics were a liberal arts education in themselves: she wrote about invisible malaria, climate change, dance, drinking water standards, snow leopards, muscular dystrophy, cybercrime, autism and some fascinating classmates. This year, as she readied for her career, she wrote a three-part series about blockchain and bitcoins.

After graduating with a psychology major, an econ minor and an innovation and entrepreneurship certificate, Anna will be moving to Atlanta to work as an associate consultant at Bain and Company. She plans to continue learning about the web3 space in her “free time” and hopes to find an outlet to continue writing about cryptocurrency as well. 

Cydney Livingston, the pride of Anson County, NC, joined us as a sophomore and proceeded to shoot out the lights with 31 career posts.

Cydney Livingston

Cydney’s biggest hit, by far, was her first-person account of trying to continue with college after the pandemic shut down Spring Term, 2020. “Wednesdays, My New Favorite Day,” appealed to Duke alumni, family and friends everywhere who were wondering what the heck was going on in Durham. Short answer: It was weird.

She was integral to our (mostly virtual) coverage of the COVID crisis, and helped the campus keep up with some of the larger questions the emerging virus presented, including social inequity and vaccine hesitancy. She also profiled some grad students, sharing a look inside their worlds from a student’s perspective. And in between, Cydney saw paleontologist Richard Leakey in one of his last public appearances and wrote about space junk, cervixes, lead poisoning, dog smarts, visual perception and North Carolina’s pungent pork industry.

Cydney is graduating with a BS in Biology and an AB II in History and is moving to Boston in the fall to begin work as an analyst with ClearView Healthcare Partners. But she is leaving open the possibility of a return to academia in history of science, technology and medicine, or science and technology studies. “I’m excited to spend a few years working and reflecting on my time at Duke and what lies ahead in my life journey.”

Rebecca Williamson

Rebecca Williamson, a first-year economics, but maybe arts major, signed up four years ago just for the experience and horizon- broadening. Mission accomplished! She’s graduating with distinction as an English major with minors in Econ and Music. Her blogging career covered The Muppets, grad student standup comedy, and the exhausting Datathon hackfest.

She will be staying in Durham to take part in the Analyst Program for DUMAC, the nonprofit corporation that manages the university’s investments.

Godspeed, young bloggers. We miss you already.

Written with fondness and gratitude by Karl Leif Bates, editor

Poetry and Pedagogy: The Push for Humanities Education in Medicine

“If language shapes inequitable systems, then their disruption relies in part on our ability to effectively wield language in subversive ways”

Dr. Irène Mathieu, MD
Dr. Mathieu reading from her award-winning 2017 book orogeny 

Buried within a smattering of bullet points and data nuggets, these evocative words flashed across the slide deck of Dr. Irène Mathieu, MD. As Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and an award-winning poet, Mathieu thinks medical students could benefit from a stronger background in the humanities. Over the course of her guest lecture, “Playing Between the Lines: Poetry by a Pediatrician,” Mathieu dropped many such pieces of wisdom linking the study of language, and more broadly the humanities, with the practice of medicine. She shared this wisdom through a variety of methods, including original poetry, anecdotes from her life, and the latest research into the field of narrative medicine. The lecture was organized by the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities, and History of Medicine and hosted by Dr. Sneha Mantri, MD, MS, Assistant Professor of Neurology at Duke University School of Medicine.

Published in 2016 and co-authored by Dr. Charon, “The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine” is considered as one of the influential works in the field. 

The field of narrative medicine, hardly twenty years old, can trace its roots to Columbia University, when a group of physicians and scholars, spearheaded by Dr. Rita Charon, MD, PhD, sought to change the discourse surrounding traditional medical training. Emphasizing various humanities-based approaches, narrative medicine seeks to increase the propensity of physicians to perceive strife, uncertainty, and complexity in the pursuit of caring for complex illnesses. In her discussion, Mathieu cited multiple studies that detail the positive impact of an exposure to the humanities on the empathy, wisdom, tolerance for ambiguity, and resistance to burnout in medical students. More recent studies have shown that narrative medicine experimental training programs have similar impacts.

Like many of her contemporaries, Mathieu sees the utility in narrative medicine to impact not only the personal lives of physicians, but also the systems in which they interact. By approaching treatment through the lens of narrative medicine, she believes that physicians can better reimagine health systems into more equitable entities. In her pursuit of greater health equity, Mathieu identified two concepts that every physician should strive to possess: structural competency and critical consciousness. Structural competency, a term coined by her colleagues in an influential 2014 paper, proposes a model of patient engagement that goes beyond the realm of cultural awareness and further into understanding upstream, systemic issues such as zoning laws, food delivery systems, and health insurance. Critical consciousness, the ability to recognize the inherent contradictions and inequities within society, complements the structural competency framework. By consistently engaging in critical reading and reasoning, future physicians will be better able to reflect on the “power, privilege, and the inequities embedded within social relationships”.

While Mathieu recognized the power of narrative medicine, she also acknowledged how poetry has never had its proper place within the prose-heavy field. In her eyes, however, incorporating poetry into narrative medicine frameworks makes a lot of sense. For one, it allows a deeper level of vulnerability and dynamicity that literary fiction and theory cannot provide. More practically, however, poetry tends to err on the shorter side of literature (Mathieu calls them “multisensory micro-stories”), offering a less time-consuming alternative for busy medical students and residents.

For most of Mathieu’s life, her passion for poetry and medicine developed on parallel tracks. It wasn’t until her undergraduate years that she began to think of poetry more externally and started to seek out opportunities for publication. Around the same time, through her work in various global health initiatives, she witnessed the power words and policy can possess over the healthcare needs of entire populations. She identified a need for a humanities education, replete with poetry and theory and fiction, as critical to increasing equity within the healthcare system. When Mathieu assumed her latest role at UVA, on the eve of publishing her third poetry collection, the critically acclaimed Grand Marronage, she was given the opportunity to integrate her poetry within the university medical curriculum. Today, Mathieu has a secondary appointment as Assistant Director of the Program in Health Humanities at UVA’s Center for Health Humanities and Ethics. The parallel pathways of her life had converged.

As Mathieu revealed during her presentation, much of her poetry has little to do with her daily medical practice. Rather, she views poetry more along the lines of an escape. This escape takes the form of a critical reflection, by connecting the quotidian with themes of family and love, excess and presence. Mathieu’s poetry has the rare ability to walk readers through her complete narrative process, from the barest of sensory details to the ambiguities of emotion.

Perhaps there is no more fitting an ending to this article than an invitation to join Mathieu’s narrative world. After all, no amount of prose can substitute for a real poem. Below is a particularly striking excerpt of Mathieu’s artistry from the first stanza of her poem, “the forest fire of family trees”:

the problem is we don't know
that many ways of doing things
for instance, neither of us can
fry an egg without public radio
chattering in our ears, & there
are worse blueprints for a home,
like what my grandfather taught
my uncle. we think we know
people until we see the way
they eat a banana, totally unlike
how we peel and devour the fruit,
only instead of eating a banana
it's something way bigger,
like loving another person.
Post by Vibhav Nandagiri, Class of 2025

Keeping the Aging Brain Connected With Words and Music

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

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