It’s that most wonderful time of the year: The official list of Clarivate’s Most Highly Cited Scientists came out this morning. Scientists all over the world came racing down the stairs in their PJs to see if Clarivate had left a treat under the tree for them.
Good news – there are 30 Duke names on the list!
Being highly cited is a point of pride for researchers. To make the cut, a paper has to be ranked in the top 1 percent for its field for the last decade. Clarivate’s “Institute for Scientific Information” crunches all the numbers.
Mostly, the names on this year’s list of Duke authors are the usual titans. Oddly, some returning names have changed categories since last year — but that’s okay, they’re still important.
And there are three fresh faces: Cardiologist Renato Delascio Lopes, MD Ph.D., who studies atrial fibrillation; David R. Smith Ph.D. of physics and electrical engineering, who’s a leading light in the field of metamaterials; and Dan Scolnic Ph.D. of physics, who’s measuring the expansion of the universe and trying to figure out the dark energy that apparently drives it.
Five of the Duke names on the list this year are co-authors in the Terrie Moffit and Avshalom Caspi lab, a hugely influential group of psychologists and social scientists. Honnalee Harrington, Renate Houts, Caspi, Moffitt, and UC Irvine professor and Duke adjunct Candice Odgers are studying human development from cradle to grave using two cohorts of life-long study participants in New Zealand and England.
Two other longitudinal scientists, Jane Costello and William Copeland of the Great Smoky Mountains Study, are also on the list.
There are 6,938 highly cited scientists this year, from 69 countries and regions. Several appear in more than one division. The United States still dominates with 38 percent of the honorees, but Chinese scientists are on the rise at 16 percent.
The most highly cited Duke authors are:
Biology and Biochemistry
Charles A. Gersbach
Christopher Bull Granger
Adrian F. Hernandez
Renato D. Lopes
Tony Jun Huang
David B. Mitzi
Christopher B. Newgard
Michael J. Pencina
Bryce B. Reeve
Pratiksha I. Thakore
Mark R. Wiesner
Barton F. Haynes
Neuroscience and Behavior
Quinn T. Ostrom
Pharmacology and Toxicology
Evan D. Kharasch
David R. Smith
Plant and Animal Science
Sheng Yang He
Psychiatry and Psychology
E. Jane Costello
Terrie E. Moffitt
Po-Chun Hsu – University of Chicago, Adjunct Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at Pratt School of Engineering
Candice Odgers, UC Irvine, Adjunct at Duke
Environment and Ecology
Robert B. Jackson, Stanford University, Adjunct Professor of Earth and Ocean Science at Nicholas School of the Environment
William E. Copeland, University of Vermont, adjunct in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, School of Medicine.
Last Tuesday, October 10 was World Mental Health Day. To mark the holiday, the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, in partnership with other student wellness organizations, welcomed Dr. Megan Jones Bell, PsyD, the clinical director of consumer and mental health at Google, to discuss mental health. Bell was formerly chief strategy and science officer at Headspace and helped guide Headspace through its transformation from a meditation app into a comprehensive digital mental health platform, Headspace Health. Bell also founded one of the first digital mental health start-ups, Lantern, where she pioneered blended mental health interventions leveraging software and coaching. In her conversation with Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, Duke professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and Thomas Szigethy, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Duke’s Student Wellness Center, Bell revealed the actions Google is taking to improve the health of the billions of people who use their platform.
She began by defining mental health, paraphrasing the World Health Organization’s definition. She said, “Mental health, to me, is a state of wellbeing in which the individual realizes his or her or their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and can contribute to their own community.” Rather than taking a medicalized approach to mental health, she argued, mental health should be recognized as something that we all have. Critically, she said that mental health is not just mental disorders; the first step to improving mental health is recognition and upstream intervention.
Underlining the critical role Google plays in global mental health, Bell cited multiple statistics: three out of four people turn to the internet first for health information. On Google Search, there are 100 million searches on health everyday; Youtube boasts 25 billion views of mental health content. Given their billions of users, Bell intimated Google’s huge responsibility to provide people with accurate, authoritative, and empathetic information. The company has multiple goals in terms of mental health that are specific to different communities. There are three principal audiences that Bell described Google’s goals for: consumers, caregivers, and communities.
Google’s consumer-facing focus is providing access to high quality information and tools to manage their users’ health. With regards to caregivers, Google strives to create strong partnerships to create solutions to transform care delivery. In terms of community health, the company works with public health organizations worldwide, focusing on social determinants of health and aiming to open up data and insights to the public health community.
Szigethy followed by launching a discussion of Google’s efforts to protect adolescents. He referenced the growing and urgent mental health crisis amongst adolescents; what is Google doing to protect them?
Bell mentioned multiple projects across different platforms in order to provide youth with safer online experiences. Key to these projects is the desire to promote their mental health by default. On Google Search, this takes the form of the SafeSearch feature. SafeSearch is on by default, filtering out explicit or inappropriate results. On Youtube, default policies include various prevention measures, one of which automatically removes content that is considered “immitable.” Bell used the example of disordered eating content in order to explain the policy– in accordance with their prevention approach, YouTube removes dangerous eating-related content containing anything that the viewer can copy. YouTube also has age-restricted videos, unavailable to users under 18, as well as certain product features that can be blocked. Google also created an eating disorder hotline with experts online 24/7.
Jokingly, Bell assured the Zoom audience that Google wouldn’t be creating a therapist chatbot anytime soon — she asserted that digital tools are not “either or.” When the conversation veered towards generative AI, Bell admitted that AI has enormous potential for helping billions of people, but maintained that it needs to be developed in a responsible way. At Google, the greatest service AI provides is scalability. Google.org, Bell said, recently worked with The Trevor Project and ReflexAI on a crisis hotline for veterans called HomeTeam. Google used AI that stimulated crises to help scale up training for volunteers. Bell said, “The human is still on the other side of the phone, and AI helped achieve that”.
Next, Bell tackled the question of health information and misinformation– what she called a significant area of focus for Google. Before diving in, however, Bell clarified, “It’s not up to Google to decide what is accurate and what is not accurate.” Rather, she said that anchoring to trusted organizations is critical to embedding mental health into the culture of a community. When it comes to health information and misinformation, Bell encapsulated Google’s philosophy in this phrase: “define, operationalize, and elevate high quality information.” In order to combat misinformation on their platform, Google asked the National Academy of Medicine to help define what accurate medical sources are. The Academy then put together a framework of authoritative health info, which WHO then nationalized. YouTube then launched its “health sources” feature, where videos from the framework are the first thing that you see. In effect, the highest quality information is raised to the top of your page when you make a search. Videos in this framework also have a visible badge on the watch panel that features a phrase like “from a healthcare professional” or “from an organization with a healthcare professional.” Bell suggested that this also helps people to remember where their information is coming from, acting as a guardrail in itself. Additionally, Google continues to fight medical misinformation with an updated medical misinformation policy, which enables them to remove content that is contradictory to medical authorities or medical consensus.
Near the end of the conversation, Szigethy asked Bell if she would recommend any behaviors for embracing wellbeing. A prevention researcher by background, Bell stressed the importance of early and regular action. Our biggest leverage point for changing mental health, she asserted, is upstream intervention and embracing routines that foster our mental health. She breaks these down into five dimensions of wellbeing: mindfulness, sleep, movement and exercise, nutrition, and social connection. Her advice is to ask the question: what daily/weekly routines do I have that foster each of these? Make a list, she suggests, and try to incorporate a daily routine that addresses each of the five dimensions.
Before concluding, Bell advocated that the best thing that we can do is to approach mental health issues with humility and listen to a community first. She shared that, at Headspace, her team worked with the mayor’s office and community organizations in Hartford, Connecticut to co-define their mental health goals and map the strengths and assets of the community. Then, they could start to think about how to contextualize Headspace in that community. Bell graciously entered the Duke community with the same humility, and her conversation was a wonderful commemoration of World Mental Health Day.
It’s a miracle that people aren’t constantly getting into car accidents.
Whizzing by at 65 miles per hour in a car, the brain rapidly decodes millions of photons worth of information from the eyes, and then must use that information to instantly figure out where it is and where it needs to go. Is that a pedestrian approaching the sidewalk or a mailbox? Do I need to take this offramp or the next one? What color is the traffic light up ahead?
Most motorists, miraculously, get to work or school without a scratch.
After nearly a decade worth of research, Duke scientists have figured out how the brain juggles all of this so effortlessly and tirelessly in a surprisingly inefficient way: by making quick, low-level models of the world to help form a clear view of the road ahead. The new findings expand the understanding of how the brain sees the world, and might one day help clinicians better understand what goes awry in people with psychiatric issues defined by perceptual problems, like schizophrenia.
Most neuroscientists think our brain cells figure out what we’re looking at by quickly comparing what’s in front of us to past experience and prior knowledge. Like a biological detective, they might determine you are looking at a house by using past experiences of neighborhoods you have been in and houses you have lived in. Enthusiasts of this Bayesian theory have long reasoned that these quick, probability-based analyses are what help people see a stable world despite sensory and motor noise from eye movement and constant environmental uncertainties, like a glare from the sun or a backdrop of a moving crowd.
A recent paper in the online journal eNeuro however, suggests neuroscientists have overlooked a simpler explanation: that brain cells are also rapidly decoding a constant stream of information from the eyes using simple pattern recognition, like determining you’re looking at a house from the visual evidence of windows, a tall rectangular opening, and a manicured lawn.
“That discriminative model has some advantages because it’s really quick, logical, and flexible,” said Marc Sommer, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical engineering at Duke and senior author of the new study. “You can learn the boundaries between decisions, and you can apply all sorts of statistical pattern-matching at a very low level. You don’t have to create a model of the world, which is a big task for a brain.”
Sommer initially hoped to confirm the general consensus in neuroscience—that the brain builds on a working model of the world instead of recognizing patterns from the ground up. But after putting the Bayesian theory to the test with Duke neurobiology alumna Divya Subramanian, Ph.D., now a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institutes for Health, he’s hoping to extend their newfound results to other processes in the brain.
To ferret out which theory would hold up, Sommer and Subramanian recruited 45 adults for an eye test. Participants looked at a computer screen and were quizzed about where a shape on the screen moved to, or if it moved at all. Throughout the test, Subramanian subtly made movements trickier and less obvious to tease out how the brain compensates when there is increasing uncertainty, from changing the contrast of the shape to the shape itself.
After scoring the eye exams, Sommer and Subramanian were surprised to find that the brain didn’t solely rely on a Bayesian approach.
People scored worse when the visual noise was dialed up, but only when they were asked where the target moved to. Test scores were mostly unaffected with noisier scenes when people were asked if a shape moved on the screen, suggesting that—to the team’s surprise—people don’t always use prior experiences when they are more uncertain about what they are seeing, like our biological detective would.
The team spent the next several years parsing through results and replicating their findings “three times to believe it,” Subramanian said, but it always led them to the same conclusion: for some forms of perception, brain cells stick to low-level patterns to draw conclusions about the world around them.
“You can collect data forever and ever. And at some point, you just realize you have enough,” Sommer said.
Sommer now plans to disrupt the dogma for other sensory systems, like spoken language, to see if beloved theories hold up to the scrutiny of testing.
The hope is that by understanding how the brain solves other perceptual problems, Sommer and others can better understand psychiatric and motor disorders, like Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, and develop more effective treatments as a result.
“There are some sub-circuits of the brain that are probably pretty well-understood to be involved with these disorders. That’s a biological description,” Sommer said. “And there’s also neurotransmitter deficits, like lacking dopamine in Parkinson’s. That’s a chemical explanation. But there are very few big-picture, explanations of why people have certain psychiatric or motor disorders.”
CITATION: “Bayesian and Discriminative Models for Active Visual Perception Across Saccades,” Divya Subramanian, John Pearson, Marc A. Sommer. eNeuro, July 14, 2023. DOI: 10.1523/ENEURO.0403-22.2023
We all have the teachers who changed our lives. They paid special attention to us, taught with grace and generosity, and just seemed to understand us on another level.
For Navya Adhikarla, that professor opened her to a new understanding of herself. As an international graduate student, her professor helped her participate in class discussions, feel comfortable asking questions on class material, and, most importantly, navigate her neurodiversity and accommodations.
These experiences and more were shared at the Neurodiversity Student Perspectives Panel hosted by Neurodiversity Student Connections on September 26. The panel was an opportunity for faculty and staff to learn more about accommodating and understanding neurodiverse students.
Duke Neurodiversity Connections defines neurodiversity as “[recognizing] the diversity of human minds and the inherent worth of all individuals. As a social justice movement, the neurodiversity movement aims to celebrate the strengths and advocate for the needs of those with autism, ADHD, and other neurological differences.” The organization works with students like Adhikarla to create a positive campus culture and academic environment. You can read more about Duke Neurodiversity Connections and their resources on their website.
The three panelists came from a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Alex Winn is a recent 2023 graduate who is currently the technical director of the Duke Cyber team and does research with the Department of Mathematics. Jadyn Cleary is a senior at Duke who is in the Duke Disability Alliance and acts as the President of The Clubhouse. Navya Adhikarla is a graduate student in the Master of Engineering Management program. She serves as the Student Program Director at Duke GPSS. The panel was moderated by Sam Brandsen, Ph.D., who graduated from Duke and is currently a research scholar at the Center for Autism and Brain Development.
The panelists talked about the various barriers they’ve encountered at Duke: feeling ashamed to use their accommodations, a lack of psychological safety on work teams, and inaccessibility to resources. Cleary talked about the barriers within the accommodations themselves. She said that even when accommodations are given, it often feels like “[they’re pushing you into] how to make you act like a neurotypical student when you aren’t” instead of genuinely serving neurodiverse students.
However, a common thread was the power of a professor to change a student’s experience. All three panelists spoke about how individual professors were the ones to connect them to resources such as the Duke Student Disability Access Office (SDAO), the Duke Disability Alliance, the Clubhouse, Duke Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS), DukeReach, and Duke Neurodiversity Connections. Without these professors, the panelists said they wouldn’t have been able to find these resources themselves. Instead, it was simply luck that they had run into professors who could inform them of the support that Duke offers.
Because of this shared experience, the panelists wished for resources to be explicitly accessible by publicizing them during orientation week and other visible places. They also suggested creating resources like self-advocacy groups, catered career coaches, and specialized mental health services.
Another common piece of advice was for professors to “pre-accommodate” all students. This could look like allowing mental health days with no questions asked, giving multiple forms to complete an assignment (essay, voice recording, infographic, etc.), using various modes of communication, offering explicit instructions for assignments, and giving adequate time for all students to finish the exam. By doing so, professors eliminate singling out students with accommodations, preventing the fear of embarrassment from peers that neurodiverse students often face.
The panelists offered numerous specific examples of how Duke administration and faculty can create a more inclusive environment. At the end of the session, all three panelists urged professors to educate themselves on how to make their classrooms inclusive. But the overwhelming sentiment was asking for professors to care. Winn, in particular, emphasized the importance of the power of example when it comes to professors, graduate students, or TAs sharing their own experiences with neurodiversity: “Seeing others be comfortable in that way has always helped me be comfortable in that way.”
Adhikarla said about the professor who changed her perspective: “She really cared, that’s all she did. She really cared.”
Raise your hand if you learned about Mendel and his peas in high school biology.
It is a common misconception that this model of simple genetic traits applies for all traits. As a result, many students adhere to the idea of genetic essentialism, which concludes that even complex traits like skin color and intelligence are determined solely by someone’s genetics.
This is a notion that has been widely disproven in the scientific community for the past 20 years. However, there is a clear, historical roadblock in the community’s ability to translate this to the public — in a study to be published next month in Science, this group of scientists thinks they found a way.
Brian Donovan is a senior research scientist at BSCS Science Learning, and the principal investigator for a $1.29 million NSF project studying the effects of changing genetics education in American high schools.
On Wednesday evening, he gave a special talk at Duke to a standing-room-only crowd filled with the Biology and Evolutionary Anthropology departments, as well as about 50 assorted undergrads who were scribbling notes like they were going to be tested (myself included).
This talk is especially salient for the crowd in attendance: Duke has one of the most innovative introductory Biology courses in the nation (as anyone who has taken BIO202 with Dr. Willis will tell you), aimed specifically at combatting prejudice from misconceptions in genetic education.
Donovan’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors from Poland who experienced ethnic persecution at its highest, and he was inspired to combat these prejudices. Many people don’t realize that Nazism borrowed many of their tenets from Jim Crow laws, he discussed in the presentation. Not to mention the basic genetic model used in classrooms across the country — the Punnett Square — was developed in accordance with eugenics.
Donovan’s pitch was simple: a vaccine against racism.
According to numbers calculated in the study based on teenagers’ social media use and content, 13% of high school students in the U.S. could be exposed to racist manifestation during their high school career. And 98% of these kids take high school biology. Combatting racism with proper, well-rounded education on common misconceptions about genetics and race could be part of the solution.
But this doesn’t mean we need to nix Mendel altogether, Donovan says — we just need to restructure the narrative.
The new-and-improved curriculum (called “human(e) genetics,” which is very clever, if you ask me) focused on facets of genetics that are commonly considered fact by the scientific community.
0.1% of the human genome is variable between people.
There is statistically more genetic variation within human populations than between them.
Complex traits, like skin color and height, have very weak association with genetics alone.
The relationship between environment and genetics is hard to quantify exactly. Studies in humans would be very unethical.
Height is a complex trait, just like skin color, says Donovan. These traits exist on a continuum. But you don’t make assumptions about people’s background based on their relative heights, yet the continuum of height variety is just as discrete as the continuum of skin color variety.
So, if all of this is such common knowledge, why is it not taught in classrooms already? Take this quote from a 1941 textbook called Biological and Human Affairs:
“There are no studies on how that impacted kids.” Donovan declared. “But I don’t think we need one after reading that. I think we can tell.”
After crunching a lot of numbers, Donovan’s team calculated that, considering the success rate of their humane genetics curriculum in experimental groups (the number of students who changed from agreeing with genetic essentialism to disagreeing with it), 52% of the original 13% exposed to racist ideals online would be protected from following them after this new education model.
These studies have even more relevance today in the age of controversy in history and biology education in Florida and the CRT controversy across the nation. In the question-and-answer session, students critiqued the feasibility of instituting humane genetics education in these states as a result.
The best way to educate adults, Donovan answered, is to educate the masses. “I have to ask you all,” he gestured to the room, “to publish. We need to publish papers that confirm we have a scientific consensus.”
Yes, I’m Noor and yes again, that is exactly how I introduced my freshman self to everyone in my year. Before you wonder, it’s an Arabic name and no I’m not from the Middle East! I’m a die-hard Pakistani with an overwhelming – and embarrassing – amount of love for Taylor Swift and Local Pakistani Music (stream Talha Anjum, you’ll be surprised!).
My personality mainly encompasses my thirteen-month-old niece, Alaya. I like to think she’s my mini doppelganger (she is not) and the last eight months of my life have been encapsulated by her cute presence, smelly diapers and charming smile. We spend most of our time listening to Taylor Swift, and – sometimes – the nursery rhyme, One Little Finger. Other times, we play the guitar and sing for fun (your average Duke freshman).
Although, contrary to the ‘average Duke freshman’ who is sure about the trajectory of their next twenty years, I am not – at all. I find my mind wandering to several distinct fields of interest; whenever a classmate asks me “but where is your mind really at?”, my deliberate and circumspect answer is always “four to be exact: economics, political science, psychology and public policy”’. This answer is invariably met by an overt facial expression screaming their internal thought “oh so she’s really not sure”. But that side eye is beside the point since that uncertainty is precisely what led me to the Duke Research Blog.
In high school, whether it was the debate club or my interest in mental health, I always found a research angle to it. For debate, I’d research different case studies in order to formulate argumentation and rebuttals; for mental health, I’d utilize such case studies and would recreate what worked. My proudest creation, the Safe Space Society (a society in my alma matter, International School Lahore), was nothing short of a camaraderie and a community fostered with love and empathy. In my eyes, such a creation was only made possible because of extensive and life-long research by dedicated professionals.
Not only is research the perfect way to navigate my interests in a fulfilling manner, but it also acts as the tunnel vision to a transfigured world. Since my navigation wishes to find its destination in a declared major, I’m incredibly excited to write and learn about research revolving science, mental health, and anything Duke brings my way.
I am, however, most excited to translate and decode complex and seemingly mundane ideas in a nuanced and amusing way. The blog seems to be on a mission to make potential engineers excited about the next big thing in mental health research; this is a mission I’m excited and honored to take part in. To sum it up, my goal at Duke Research Blog is to attend the research events you don’t want to and then write about them to make you regret not attending those events!
– A serious warning: you will see me bringing a Pakistani twist to every article I write! It’s just what us Pakistanis do (for a sample look at the sentence above). –
My eyes peered at my mom’s hand, rarely blinking. My ever-bouncing leg had stilled. My mind caught every subtle movement, attempting to decipher the pattern. I watched, entranced, as my mom’s fingers nimbly wove together the pieces of red thread into the bracelet I would wear every day for the rest of my life.
Chinese red string bracelets are a symbol of luck, prosperity, health, protection, and courage. In ancient China, the emperor would give his first, therefore most important, wife a red string bracelet. Similarly, red string bracelets are gifted to newlywed couples to commemorate their true love and wish them well in a new stage of their lives. Close relatives also gift a red string bracelet to women and girls on their 本命年 (Year of Birth), in order to protect them from the negative energy they will face that year.
A bracelet serves as a physical representation of a promise. Most obviously, a friendship bracelet shows a promise to love and trust your matching bracelet wearer. But any string on your wrist represents a promise. A W.W.J.D. band serves as a promise of faith and to live like Christ. A 4Ocean beaded bracelet is a promise to care for the Earth’s aquatic life. Even an Apple Watch is a promise to live healthily.
I was given my red string bracelet by my mom in 2016 (the Year of the Monkey). When I wear it, I remember my family’s unconditional love for me and the history of my Chinese heritage. The bracelet serves as a mutual agreement between my family and me: to protect and look after one another.
My name is Emily Zou and I’m a freshman from a suburb outside of Portland, Oregon. The bracelet my mom made 6 years ago sat on my wrist the entire flight from PDX to RDU. Similarly, my parents’ promise is what has landed me here. Throughout the past 18 years of my life, my parents have taken care of me: they cooked me dinner at 9 pm after school board meetings, drove me 4 hours to debate tournaments at 4 a.m., cut endless bowls of fruit for late night study sessions, and of course, are paying my college tuition.
A promise is a unique moral obligation. The obligation isn’t inherent; there’s no biological or evolutionary reason to keep a promise. It’s also not for fear of consequence; simply breaking a promise does not inflict physical or emotional damage on you, but rather the consequence is the act itself. And yet, promises are expected to be kept universally, regardless of scope, culture, or time period. This is because just like a red string bracelet, a promise is made with intentionality. Just like each knot must be precisely made, so must each part of a promise.
Now, it’s my turn to uphold my end of the promise. I’m extremely lucky to attend a university like Duke, and I plan to use every opportunity possible to someday give my parents even half of what they’ve given me throughout my childhood. And not just to my parents, but to the rest of the world, as well. I believe that each one of us wears a metaphorical bracelet symbolizing our promises to society. To protect one another and leave this world better than how we found it.
My bracelet sits perfectly positioned against the pulsing heartbeat in my wrist’s veins, pumping its promise into my veins to accompany the red blood cells to every part of my body. It remains visible as I ride the C1 to my Economics lecture, code an APT, or throw a ceramic piece on the wheel. As long as a bracelet is worn, its wearer swears to keep their promise. However, much like a bracelet worn every day, it’s often easy to forget the various commitments in daily life. Friendship bracelets fray, W.W.J.D. bands become stained, and Apple Watches become simply a way to check text messages.
Our society’s foundation is based on promises: promises to value community, act with integrity, abide by the law, show up to work or school, put our shopping carts away, etc. Some of the most important promises are made by leaders and institutions. If we anthropomorphize the American government, we can imagine the slew of red string bracelets it hands out to its citizens, each representing a different promise. These promises are explicitly laid out in the preamble to the Constitution: to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” More specifically, each amendment lays out a specific promise from the government to the people about certain rights and privileges. However, it seems that in its daily wear and tear, the US Government has forgotten about its promise to its people as we experience daily violations of these promises.
This is what I want to discuss at Duke, and more specifically, on the Duke Research Blog. Promises transcend so many different academic and research fields: the promises parents make to their children, promises schools make to their students, promises countries make to their citizens.
When we tie the knot around our wrist for the very first time, the bracelet’s strings taut and secure, it’s simple to uphold its promise for the days following. Hyper aware of its presence, each time we move our arm, we recognize it: I made an effort to improve my Mandarin during the first days of the Year of the Monkey; the recently converted attend church every Sunday; Apple Watch users take their 10,000 steps. However, as our minds become used to the bracelet, or overwhelmed by the fresh new ones, its promises become obsolete. This phenomenon can only be reversed when we ground ourselves in the intentions of our bracelets: to protect one another, the marginalized, and our planet.
At Duke, I’m weaving my bracelets from scratch, which includes the Duke Research Blog. But a lot of my future bracelets are still up in the air. I’m still collecting my strings, and I’m learning that that is okay. And moving forward, not all of my posts will wax so philosophical, actually, probably none of them will. I just figured if I get one opportunity to make a first impression, I might as well share my life philosophy.
Warning: the following article discusses rape and sexual assault. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, help is available.
“You never screamed for help?”
“Why didn’t you fight back?”
These are questions that lawyers asked E. Jean Carroll in her rape case against former president Donald J. Trump this spring. These kinds of questions reflect a myth about rape: that it’s only rape if the victim puts up a fight.
A recent review of the research, “Neuroscience Evidence Counters a Rape Myth,” aims to set the record straight. It serves as a call to action for those in the scientific and legal professions. Ebani Dhawan completed this work at the University College London with Professor Patrick Haggard. She is now my classmate at Duke University, where she is pursuing an MA in Bioethics & Science Policy.
Commonly accepted beliefs and myths about rape are a persistent problem in defining and prosecuting sexual assault. The intentions of all actors are examined in the courtroom. If a victim freezes or does not attempt to resist during a sexual assault, perpetrators may claim there was passive acquiescence; that consent was assumed from an absence of resistance.
From the moment a victim reports an assault, the legal process poses “why” questions about the survivor’s behavior. This is problematic because it upholds the idea that survivors can (and should) choose to scream or fight back during an assault.
This new paper presents neuroscientific evidence which counters that misconception. Many survivors of sexual assault report ‘freezing’ during an assault. The researchers argue that this is an involuntary response to a threat which can prevent a victim from actively resisting, and that it occurs throughout biology.
Animal studies have demonstrated that severe, urgent threats, like assault or physical restraint, can trigger a freeze response involving fixed posture (tonic immobility) or loss of muscle tone (collapsed immobility). Self-reports of these states in humans shed light on an important insight into immobility. Namely, that we are unable to make voluntary actions during this freezing response.
An example of this is the “lockup” state displayed by pilots during an aviation emergency. After a plane crash, it’s hard to imagine anyone asking a pilot if they froze because they really wanted to crash the plane.
Yet, quite frequently victims of sexual assault are asked to explain the freeze response, something which is further made difficult by the impaired memory and loss of sense of agency which often accompanies trauma.
The legal process around sexual assault should be updated to reflect this neuroscientific evidence.
THIS MYTH HAS REAL CONSEQUENCES.
The vast majority of sexual assault cases do not result in a conviction. It is estimated that out of every 1,000 sexual assaults in the U.S., only 310 are reported to the police and only 28 lead to felony conviction. That is a conviction rate of less than 3%.
In England and Wales, just 3% of rapes recorded in the previous year resulted in charges. According to RAINN, one of the leading anti-sexual assault organizations, many victims don’t report because they believe the justice system would not do anything to help — a belief that these conviction rates support.
E. Jean Carroll named this in her trial. She said, “Women don’t come forward. One of the reasons they don’t come forward is because they’re always asked, why didn’t you scream? You better have a good excuse if you didn’t scream.”
This research serves as a much-needed call-to-action. By revisiting processes steeped in myth, justice can be better served.
I asked Ebani what she thinks must be done. Here are her recommendations:
The neuroscience community should pursue greater mechanistic understanding of threat processing and involuntary action processes and the interaction between them.
Activists and legal scholars should advocate for processes reflective of the science behind involuntary responses like freezing, and the inability of victims to explain that behavior.
Neuroscientists should contribute to Police officers’ education regarding involuntary responses to rape and sexual assault.
“I’m telling you: He raped me whether I screamed or not.” – E. Jean Carroll
We didn’t know we needed another way to rank the importance of Duke’s scientists, but the folks at research.com have gone ahead and developed one anyway. And in its second year of data, several Duke people come out in the top ten nationally and globally. So, okay, maybe we did need a new ranking system!
Duke Psychology and Neuroscience swept the U.S. medals in psychology: Terrie E. Moffitt Ph.D., first, Michael Tomasello, Ph.D. second, and Avshalom Caspi, Ph.D. third. Duke University’s psychology is overall ninth in the world, according to this ranking.
Moffitt, the Nannerl O. Keohane University Distinguished Professor of P&N, and Caspi, the Edward M. Arnett Distinguished Professor of P&N,are frequent co-authors on a lifelong psychology and health study of 1,000 people born in Dunedin, New Zealand. Moffitt ranks fourth in the world in psychology, with 207,903 citations of her 582 works. Caspi’s 159,598 citations of 507 papers were good enough for 10th in the world.
Developmental psychologist Tomasello, the James F. Bonk Distinguished Professor of P&N, has focused his work on cognitive development, social cognition and language acquisition. He has 147,951 citations on an even 800 works, placing him second in the U.S. and ninth in the world.
Nobel laureate Robert Lefkowitz M.D., the chancellor’s distinguished professor of medicine, is ranked second in the nation and third in the world for Biology and Biochemistry with 198,000 citations of his 881 papers. The rankings reflect the importance of Lefkowitz’s discovery and characterization of the 7-transmembrane g-coupled protein receptor (GPCR), a fundamental signaling port on the surface of cells that is targeted by a third to a half of all prescription drugs.
Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences professor and Co-Director of Duke’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, Harold G. Koenig M.D., was ranked seventh in the nation and 10th in the world for Social Sciences and Humanities for his work on spirituality and health. His 703 publications have earned 66,404 citations.
Many other Duke scholars finished in the top 100 worldwide in their respective fields, some even making a mark in multiple fields. Check it out.
Methodology: Research.com’s ranking of the best scholars by discipline relies on data consolidated from various sources including OpenAlex and CrossRef. The bibliometric data for estimating the citation-based metrics were collected on Dec. 21, 2022. Position in the ranking is based on a researcher’s D-index (Discipline H-index), which includes exclusively papers and citation metrics for an examined discipline.
And just to prevent some letters to the editor, we acknowledge that the H-index has its critics, including its inventor. We don’t make the rankings folks, we just share them.
The literature is clear: there is a dark side to engaging with social media, with linkages to depressive symptoms, a sense of social isolation, and dampened self-esteem recently revealed in the global discourse as alarming potential harms.
Underlying the pitfalls of social media usage is social comparison—the process of evaluating oneself relative to another person—to the extent that those who engage in more social comparison are at a significantly higher risk of negative health outcomes linked to their social media consumption.
Today, 72 percent of Americans use some type of social media, with most engaging daily with at least one platform.(1) Particularly for adolescents and young adults, interactions on social media are an integral part of building and maintaining social networks.(2-5) While the potential risks to psychosocial well-being posed by chronic engagement with these platforms have increasingly come to light within the past several years, mitigating these adverse downstream effects poses a novel and ongoing challenge to researchers and healthcare professionals alike.
The intervention aimed to supplant college students’ habitual social comparison … with social savoring: experiencing joyful emotions about someone else’s experiences.
A team of researchers led by Nancy Zucker, PhD, professor in Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and director of graduate studies in psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, recently investigated this issue and found promising results for a brief online intervention targeted at altering young adults’ manner of engagement with social media. The intervention aimed to supplant college students’ habitual social comparison when active on social media with social savoring: experiencing joyful emotions about someone else’s experiences.
Zucker’s team followed a final cohort of 55 college students (78 percent female, 42 percent White, with an average age of 19.29) over a two-week period, first taking baseline measures of their mental well-being, connectedness, and social media usage before the students returned to daily social media usage. On day 8, a randomized group of students received the experimental intervention: an instructional video on the skill of social savoring. These students were then told to implement this new skill when active on social media throughout days 8 to 14, before being evaluated with the rest of the cohort at the two-week mark.
For those taught how and why to socially savor their daily social media intake, shifting focus from social comparison to social savoring measurably increased their performance self-esteem—their positive evaluation—as compared with the control group, who received no instructional video. Consciously practicing social savoring even seemed to enable students to toggle their self-esteem levels up or down: those in the intervention group reported significantly higher levels of self-esteem on days during which they engaged in more social savoring.
Encouragingly, the students who received the educational intervention on social media engagement also opted to practice more social savoring over time, suggesting they found this mode of digesting their daily social media feeds to be enduringly preferable to that of social comparison. The team’s initial findings suggest a promising future for targeted educational interventions as an effective way to improve facets of young adults’ mental health without changing the quantity or quality of their media consumption.
Of course, the radical alternative—forgoing social media platforms altogether in the name of improved well-being—looms in the distance as an appealing yet often unrealistic option for many; therefore, thoughtfully designed, evidence-based interventions such as this research team’s program seem to offer a more realistic path forward.