Thirty-seven Duke faculty were named to the list this year, based on the number of highly cited papers they produced over an 11-year period from January 2009 to December 2019. Citation rate, as tracked by Clarivate’s Web of Science, is an approximate measure of a study’s influence and importance.
Two Duke researchers appear in two categories: Human Vaccine Institute Director Barton Haynes, and Michael Pencina, vice dean of data science and information technology in the School of Medicine.
And two of the Duke names listed are new faculty, recruited as part of the Science & Technology initiative: Edward Miao in Immunology and Sheng Yang He in Biology.
This year, 6,127 researchers from 60 countries are being recognized by the listing. The United States still dominates, with 41 percent of the names on the list, but China continues to grow its influence, with 12 percent of the names.
Robert M. Califf, Lesley H. Curtis, Pamela S. Douglas, Christopher Bull Granger, Adrian F. Hernandez, L. Kristen Newby, Erik Magnus Ohman, Manesh R. Patel, Michael J. Pencina, Eric D. Peterson.
Environment and Ecology:
Emily S. Bernhardt, Stuart L. Pimm, Mark R. Weisner.
Drew T. Shindell
Barton F. Haynes, Edward A. Miao
Barton F. Haynes
Plant and Animal Science:
Sheng Yang He
Psychiatry and Psychology:
Avshalom Caspi, E. Jane Costello, Renate M. Houts, Terrie E. Moffitt
Michael J. Pencina
Dan Ariely, Geraldine Dawson, Xinnian Dong, Charles A. Gersbach, Ru-Rong Ji, Robert J. Lefkowitz, Sarah H. Lisanby, Jie Liu, Jason W. Locasale, David B. Mitzi, Christopher B. Newgard, Ram Oren, David R. Smith, Avner Vengosh.
We’ve all heard the term “survival of the fittest,” which scientist Charles Darwin famously coined to explain how organisms with heritable traits that give them an advantage — such as avoiding predators or beating out others for the chance to mate — are able to survive and pass on these advantageous traits to their offspring.
In his talk with ClubEvMed last Tuesday, Brian Hare of Duke Evolutionary Anthropology explained key points from his new book that he co-authored with his wife and research partner, Vanessa Woods, entitled Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity.
The term “fittest” is often associated with animals who are physically stronger or of more value than others, but being “fit” can also include an organism’s ability to communicate well with others in its group, which can provide an evolutionary advantage. For example, more social animals can form alliances with each other and protect each others’ young, so the whole population stays stronger in terms of number.
Hare cited a comparison between chimpanzees and bonobos, both of which have the potential for infanticide by aggressive males in a group. However, bonobos have zero cases of infanticide because female bonobos are able to communicate well and form alliances to protect each others’ young from aggressive males. Since the high cost of aggression for males outweighs the benefit, the males are friendlier, and the young bonobos survive. While this is a specific case with wild animals, other species have adopted social skills as a method of survival through domestication or self-domestication.
Hare referred to dogs as “exhibit A” of survival of the friendliest via domestication, because humans have bred dogs that are more playful, approachable and patient for centuries. Dogs are exceptionally good at understanding, responding to and communicating with humans as a result of domestication. Hare also explained one Russian study in which they began selecting foxes based on their friendliness towards people. They bred the most friendly foxes together and then compared the friendliness of their offspring to the offspring of randomly bred foxes. The results showed that friendlier foxes differed in physiology in addition to behavior, and were better at cooperating and communicating with humans. This is an example of self-domestication, which changes development patterns and has increased fitness via friendliness. Friendliness in this case means skill in cooperating and communication.
Survival of the Friendliest argues that humans today are the friendliest species of human, which may be why we have lasted so long evolutionarily. However, with the new type of friendliness also comes a new type of aggression. Mother bears are kind and nurturing to their cubs, but also have the most potential for aggression when they feel their cubs are threatened. Similarly in humans, when we feel people who share our identity are threatened, we want to protect those individuals.
Hare and Woods reason that this desire to protect also reduces our ability to cooperate or communicate with those who we feel threaten us or threaten our “group”— whether this be our family, our race or another trait. When our ability to communicate is reduced, we begin to dehumanize those who we feel threaten the people who share our identity. This then becomes a cycle, where people dehumanize those who they believe are dehumanizing them.
In order to stop this cycle, Hare and Woods argue that humans will need to alter their view of who they believe “belongs” to their group to include more people. We need to communicate openly and build a desire to protect other humans, rather than dehumanize them.
Though lead has been widely eliminated from use in products due to proven health risks, the lifelong consequences of childhood lead exposure for children born in the era of lead use in gasoline are still unknown.
Aaron Reuben, fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at Duke, spoke about the long-term implications of childhood lead exposure Friday, September 18th through the Nicholas School’s Environmental Health and Toxicology Seminar series. He conducts research as a member of the Moffitt and Caspi Lab, studying genes, environment, health, and behavior.
Reuben started with a brief history of lead exposure. After the United States’ initial use of lead in gasoline in 1923, the practice became widespread with the U.S. Public Health Services approval for expansion. Five decades later, in the mid-1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency issued the first restrictions on lead use in gasoline products. Simultaneously, surveillance of population-level blood-lead levels indicated cause for concern. Though lead was phased of out of gas completely by 1995, the peak led exposures in the 70s were on average three to four times higher than current levels that demand clinical attention. Despite lead regulations, the impacts of exposure did not miraculously cease as well.
The research Reuben covered in his talk centers on the Dunedin Study. This study of 1,037 people born between April 1972 and March 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand is an ongoing longitudinal research project comprised of over 30 years of data. The cohort of participants provide a unique chance for research in which social and economic factors do not have to be detangled from findings as they represent the full range of socioeconomic statuses in their city.
Reuben’s first question was about the impact of lead exposure on psychiatric and personality differences in adulthood. Study members were asked about symptoms such as substance dependence, depression, fears and phobias, or mania. These reports were transformed into a continuous measure of general psychopathology, which indicated that children with high lead levels experienced more psychiatric problems across adulthood. Though the developmental differences were modest, the associations between lead and psychopathological issues are of a similar magnitude to other known risk factors like childhood maltreatment and family history of mental illness. Yet, unlike the latter two risk factors, Reuben said, “Lead exposure is not preordained – it’s modifiable.”
The research team also measured participant personality using the Big Five Inventory and found that individuals with high-blood level levels as children exhibited more difficult personality styles as adults. The biggest difference between groups with high and low childhood blood-lead level was the trait of conscientiousness, which has impacts on goal obtainment within one’s education and occupation, as well as overall satisfaction with relationships.
The next question of the presentation centered on differences in adulthood cognitive ability. At midlife, defined as age 38 for this question, children with higher blood-lead levels had lower cognitive ability, experiencing a deficit of two IQ points per five microgram per deciliter increase of blood-lead level. Once again, though these findings were relatively modest, the loss of IQ points was accompanied by downward social mobility compared to participants’ parents. Further, when evaluations that took place at age 45 were included in the data, researchers saw even larger declines in IQ points between exposure-level groups, which Reuben predicts may even represent a trend of acceleration. He believes that as the study continues with the participants, they will find rapid decline around age 65, with higher levels of dementia symptoms among participants compared to same-aged peers.
The last question evaluated the structural integrity of the brain at midlife. The team found that children with higher lead exposure had lower gray-matter integrity, lower white-matter integrity, and older estimated brain age at age 45. Estimated brain age was predicted by an algorithm based on MRI scans, as brains look physically different as they age and gray- and white-matter integrity refers to the conditions of physical structures in the brain. These findings suggest that childhood led exposure may result in an overall lowered brain integrity at midlife, as well as accelerated brain aging.
Reuben’s work is important for understanding how childhood exposure to this neurotoxin has the ability to influence continued development, behavior, emotion, and life outcomes decades later. It is crucial to evaluate long-term ramifications of childhood lead exposure – a phenomena experience by hundreds of millions of people across the globe during the era of lead in gasoline who are likely unknowingly dealing with impacts now.
We are all living within the Covid moment, but we are not living within the Covid moment equally. The pandemic has exposed a recurrent rift in the United States’ healthcare system: Black Americans and other people of color (POC) are both disproportionately impacted by health issues and disproportionately lack access to care.
In a recent study on North Carolina conditions, Duke researchers found that the “odds of testing positive for [Covid] were higher for both Black and Hispanic individuals as well as within neighborhoods with a higher proportion of Black or Hispanic residents – confirming that Black and Hispanic communities are disproportionately affected.”
Williams opened the panel by emphasizing the relevance of this moment: Current Covid impacts are directly informed by historical inequities and intricately span into the future. This is but one system of plaguing racism.
To speak about the intimate intersection of race and healthcare in America, Pearson offered grounding insight to systemic and structural racism. The United States is a country filled with patterns that produce and reproduce systematic advantages for those who are white while simultaneously disadvantaging people of color, most often Black and indigenous populations. Racism in America greatly transcends personal acts of racialized discrimination and harassment, he said. Racism in America is multiplex, foundational, and rooted within our society’s core.
“The U.S. national identity is tied to structural racism. …This is who we are, this is who we’ve been since the beginning of this country,” Pearson said, “The racialized inequities of Covid are simply the latest [manifestations]. We shouldn’t be surprised.”
A recently circulating figure states that 96% of people with severe outcomes or death from Covid had comorbidities, the presence of health conditions in addition to Covid. But Bentley-Edwards cautioned against misuse of this claim: “Many of these people would be alive if not for Covid.”
Though many who have died from the virus had underlying conditions, it is ultimately the virus that killed them. Communities of color often have disproportionate prevalence of underlying conditions, making them more susceptible to complications from Covid. But even when the prevalence of underlying conditions is the same among white and non-white populations, people of color are more likely to be more negatively affected by them.
For example, cardiovascular disease is similarly distributed between white and Black people, yet Black people are more likely to die of it, and at a younger age, compared to white people. Similarly, Black and other POC populations who contract Covid are more likely to die despite similar rates of contracting the virus in certain regions of the country.
Pearson and Bentley-Edwards also offered their insights on who is seen as essential and who is seen as dispensable in the United States.
Those who have been on the front lines with the most exposure and risks have been laborers who are most often under-valued Black and Brown peoples, Bentley-Edwards said. Though Covid terminology has come to dub them essential, it is undeniable that our society continues to see these types of workers as dispensable or replacable, and thus does not protect the people responsible for protecting us. Because many people of color live in multi-generational households as a culturally protective factor, increased chance of contracting Covid has led to uncertainties on the safety of returning home to young and elderly family members, she said. Further, the disproportionate unemployment rate of 13% for Black Americans compared to the 8.4% national rate is a staggering one. Since insurance is tied to employment, Black and Brown communities often avoid treatments due to the financial burden of unaffordable and inaccessible care.
Within the pandemic, we have seen the ever-present epidemiological impacts of police brutality and murder in the U.S with fresh eyes, the panelists said. In many ways, Black peoples’ experiences with healthcare mirrors that of their experiences with police – likely because both systems are anchored by an unjust nucleus.
“[Covid and police brutality] are slightly different manifestations of the same phenomenon,” Pearson said. We are able to easily identify the murders of individuals such as Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery as stolen lives due to racist actions, however the slow burn of a racist health care system is less easily conceptualized or reconciled with, he said. Either way, the cause is one and the same.
Racism within systems that are meant to protect have generated a deep mistrust from Black and Brown people. Williams brought up the issue of a potential Covid vaccination amongst communities of color. “You have to know the history and why they would hesitate,” Bentley-Edwards said, bringing up the Tuskegee experiments and the work of J. Marion Sims. These accounts offer grim revelation of a heinous, racist history of exploiting vulnerable people for scientific and medical explorations.
Bentley-Edwards said that governments and healthcare institutions must address the rightful apprehensions of Black and Brown people in order to decrease vaccine hesitancy and serve at-risk communities. “What are they going to do differently?”
Williams also proposed the notion of data collection as a source of bias: In what ways are the data informatics that are collected reflections of an inequitable system? Bentley-Edwards and Pearson both suggest that to understand the current moment, as well as the healthcare system more largely, there needs to be collection and analysis of racial data. Additionally, there simply needs to be measurements for indicators beyond conventional ones which do not properly account for impacts on communities of color.
The push for new and different kind of data is supported by a growing evidence for the manifestations of inequality within biological bodies. For example, Pearson spoke about his own research on telomeres, a protective structure on the ends of chromosomes that protect DNA from degradation. Telomeres are telling both of stress and aging. Pearson’s work found that the average Black American woman is six to seven biological years older than a white American woman of the same age by evaluating telomere lengths, controlling for income, education, and other important socioeconomic factors. This indicates physiological affects linked to the stresses and disproportionalities of race down to the cellular level. Through genetics, mental health, and other physical degradations, the impacts of racism and racist healthcare quite literally last a lifetime and are even intergenerational.
Pearson closed the panel by urging attendees to take action where they find themselves. Though the need for animated policy which reflects recent discussions and protests is dire, the local spaces we find ourselves in need to be reshaped as well – including our universities.
In this moment, our responsibilities to one another have become more obvious than ever before. We must become more adept in thinking about and taking action for the communities in which we live and are connected to, whether they are comprised of people who look like us or not.
University of North Carolina cell biologist Efra Rivera-Serrano says he doesn’t look like a stereotypical scientist: he’s gay, Puerto Rican, and a personal trainer.
Known on Twitter as @NakedCapsid or “the guy who looks totally buff & posts microscopy threads,” he tweets about virology and cell biology and aims to make science more accessible to the non-science public.
But science communication encompasses more than posting the
facts of viral transmission or sending virtual
valentines featuring virus-infected cells, Rivera-Serrano says. As a
science communicator, he’s also committed to conveying truths that are even
more rarely expressed in the science world today. He’s committed to diversity.
Rivera-Serrano’s path through academia has been far from linear — largely because of the microaggressions (which are sometimes not so micro) that he’s faced within educational institutions. He’s been approached while shopping by a construction work recruiter and told by a graduate adviser in biology to “stop talking like a Puerto Rican.”
And the worst part is that he’s far from being the only one
in this kind of position. That’s why Rivera-Serrano holds one simple question
close to heart:
What would a cell do?
“I use this question to shape the way I tackle problems,” Rivera-Serrano
says. After all, a key component of virology is the importance of intercellular
communication in controlling disease spread. Similarly, a major goal of
diversity-related science communication is “priming” others to fight stereotypes
and biases about who belongs in science.
Virology’s “herd immunity” theory operates under the principle that higher vaccination rates mean fewer infections. For some viruses, a 90% vaccination rate is all it takes to completely eradicate an infection from existing in a population. Rivera-Serrano, therefore, hopes to use inclusive science communication as a vaccination tool of sorts to combat discriminatory practices and ideologies in science. He isn’t looking for 100% of the world to agree with him—only enough to make it work.
This desire for “inclusive science communication” led Rivera-Serrano to found Unique Scientists, a website that showcases and celebrates diverse scientists from across the globe. Scientists from underrepresented backgrounds can submit a biography and photo to the site and have them published for the world’s aspiring scientists to see.
Generating social herd immunity needs to start from an early
age, and Unique Scientists has proven itself useful for this purpose. Before introducing
the website, school teachers asked their students to draw a scientist. “It’s
usually a man who’s white with crazy hair,” according to Rivera-Serrano. Then, they
were given the same instructions after
browsing through the site, and the results were remarkable.
“Having kids understand pronouns or see an African American
in ecology—that’s all something you can do,” Rivera-Serrano explains. It doesn’t
take an insane amount of effort to tackle this virus.
What it does take, though, is cooperation. “It’s not a one-person job, for sure,” Rivera-Serrano says. But maybe we can get there together.
How do we represent space in the brain? Neuroscientists have been working to understand this question since the mid-20th century, when researchers like EC Tolman started experimenting with rats in mazes. When placed in a maze with a food reward that the rats had been trained to retrieve, the rats consistently chose the shortest path to the reward, even if they hadn’t practiced that path before.
Over 50 years later, researchers like Sam Gershman, PhD, of Harvard’s Gershman Lab are still working to understand how our brains encode information about space.
Gershman’s research questions center around the concept of a cognitive map, which allows the brain to represent landmarks in space and the distance between them. He spoke at a Center for Cognitive Neuroscience colloquium at Duke on Feb. 7.
Maps are formed via reinforcement learning, which involves predicting and maximizing future reward. When an individual is faced with problems that have multiple steps, they can do this by relying on previously learned predictions about the future, a method called successor representation (SR), which would suggest that the maps we hold in our brain are predictive rather than retroactive.
One specific region implicated in representations of physical space is the hippocampus, with hippocampal place cell activity corresponding to positions in physical space. In one study, Gershman found, as rats move through space, that place field activity corresponding to physical location in space skews opposite of the direction of travel; in other words, activity reflects both where the rodent currently is and where it just was. This pattern suggests encoding of information that will be useful for future travel through the same terrain: in Gershman’s words, “As you repeatedly traverse the linear track, the locations behind you now become predictive of where you are going to be in the future.”
This idea that cognitive activity during learning reflects construction of a predictive map is further supported by studies where the rodents encounter novel barriers. After being trained to retrieve a reward from a particular location, introducing a barrier along this known path leads to increased place cell activity as they get closer to the barrier; the animal is updating its predictive map to account for the novel obstacle.
This model also explains a concept called context preexposure facilitation effect, seen when animals are introduced to a new environment and subsequently exposed to a mild electrical shock. Animals who spend more time in the new environment before receiving the shock show a stronger fear response upon subsequent exposures to the box than those that receive a shock immediately in the new environment. Gershman attributes this observation to the time it takes the animal to construct its predictive map of the new environment; if the animal is shocked before it can construct its predictive map, it may be less able to generalize the fear response to the new environment.
With this understanding of cognitive maps, Gershman presents
a compelling and far-reaching model to explain how we encode information about
our environments to aid us in future tasks and decision making.
As we age, our bodies change, and these changes extend into our brains and cognition. Although research has identified many changes to the brain with age, like decreases in gray matter volume or delayed recall from memory, researchers like Shivangi Jain, PhD, are interested in a deeper look at how the brain changes with age.
As a post-doctoral associate in the David Madden Lab at Duke, Jain is interested in how structural and functional connectivity in the brain change with age. Jain relies on the increasingly popular method of graph theory, which is a way of modeling the brain as a set of nodes or brain regions that are interconnected. Studying the brain in this way allows researchers to make connections between the physical layout of the brain and how these regions interact when they are active. Structural connectivity represents actual anatomical connections between regions in the brain, while functional connectivity refers to correlated activity between brain regions.
Jain’s studies use a series of tasks that test speed, executive function, and memory, each of which decline with age. Using fMRI data, Jain observed a decline in functional connectivity, where functional modules become less segregated with age. In terms of structural connectivity, aging was associated with a decline in the strength of white matter connections and global efficiency, which represents the length between modules with shorter paths being more efficient. Thus, the aging brain shows changes at the anatomical, activational, and behavioral levels.
Jain then examined how these network-level changes played a role in the observed behavioral changes. Using statistical modeling, she found that the decline in performance in tasks for executive control could be explained by the observed changes in functional connectivity. Furthermore, Jain found that the changes in structural connectivity caused the change in functional connectivity. Taken together, these results indicate that the physical connections between areas in the brain deteriorate with age, which in turn causes a decrease in functional connectedness and a decline in cognitive ability.
Research like Jain’s can help explain the complicated relationships between brain structure and function, and how these relationships affect behavioral output.
The average dog costs its human owner $10,000-20,000 over the course of its lifetime, from vet care and grooming to treats and toys to the new fad of doggie DNA testing. But what’s in it for us? Researcher Kerri Rodriguez – a Duke alum of evolutionary anthropology and current grad student with Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine – explores just that.
Rodriguez is a member of the OHAIRE Lab at Purdue, which stands for the Organization for Human-Animal Interaction Research and Education. Continuing her work from undergrad, Rodriguez researches the dynamic duo between humans and dogs – a relationship some 15,000 to 40,000 years in the evolutionary making. Rodriguez returned to Duke to speak on February 12th, honoring both Darwin Day and Duke’s second annual Dog Day.
It’s well-known that dogs are man’s best friend, but they do much more than just hang out with us. Dogs provide emotional support when we are stressed or anxious and are highly attentive to us and our emotional states.
In a study of 975 adult dog owners, dogs ranked closely to romantic partners and above best friends, children, parents, and siblings when their owners were asked who they turn to when feeling a variety of ways. Dogs provide non-judgmental support in a unique way. They have also been found to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, lower perceived stress in individuals, improve mood, and improve energy up to 10 hours after interactions. Therapy dogs are prevalent on many college campuses now due to these impacts and are found in hospitals for the same reasons, having been found to reduce subjective pain, increase good hormones and dampen bad ones, causing some patients to require less pain medications.
Along with reduced stress, dogs make us healthier in other ways, from making us exercise to reducing risk of cardiovascular disease. A study of 424 heart attack survivors found that non-dog owners were four times more likely to be deceased one year after the attack than victims who owned dogs.
The increased social interaction that dogs offer their human companions is also quite amazing due to the social facilitation effect they provide by offering a neutral way to start conversations. One study with people who have intellectual disabilities found that they received 30% more smiles along with increased social interactions when out in public with a dog. Similar studies with people who use wheelchairs have produced similar results, offering that dogs decreased their loneliness in public spaces and led to more social engagements.
Rodriguez also shared results from a study dubbed Pet Wingman. Using dating platforms Tinder and Bumble, researchers found that after one month, simulated profiles containing pictures with dogs received 38% more matches, 58% more messages, and 46% more interactions than simulated profiles without. Even just having a dog in photos makes you appear more likable, happier, relaxed, and approachable – it’s science!
A large bulk of Rodriguez’s own work is focused on dogs in working roles, particularly the roles of a service dog. She explained that unlike therapy or emotional support dogs, service dogs are trained for one person, to do work and perform tasks to help with a disability, and are the only dogs granted public access by the American Disability Association. Rodriguez is particularly interested in the work of dogs who help American veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Around one out of five post-9/11 military veterans have PTSD and the disorder is difficult to treat. Service dogs are becoming increasingly popular to help combat effects of PTSD, ranking at the third highest placed type of service dog in the United States. PTSD service dogs are able to use their body weight as a grounding method, provide tactile interruption, reduce hypervigilance, and prevent crowding of their veterans. However, because of the lack of research for the practice, the Veterans Association doesn’t support the use of the dogs as a therapy option. This is an issue Rodriguez is currently trying to address.
Working with a group called K9s for Warriors, Rodriguez’s research evaluated the mental health, social health, quality of life, and cortisol levels of veterans who have received service dogs and those who were on the wait list for dogs. Veterans with service dogs had lower PTSD symptoms, better mental health, and better social health. Rodriguez is now working on a modification to this study using both veterans and their spouses that will be able to measure these changes to their well-being and health over time, as well as assessing the dog’s health too. Unlike other organizations, K9s for Warriors uses 90% shelter dogs, most of which are mutts. Each dog is as unique as the human it is placed with, but no bond is any less special.
Vision provides a rich source of information that most people’s lives revolve around. Yet, for blind people, how do they conceive of visual intake and what happens to regions of the brain dedicated to vision if a person doesn’t have typical visual input? These are questions that drive Marina Bedny PhD, an Assistant Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and principal investigator of a neuroplasticity and development lab at John Hopkins University.
Bedny spoke at Duke’s Institute for Brain Sciences on Friday, January 17th, about her work with congenitally blind adults. Her lab explores similarities and distinctions of visual perceptions between blind and seeing people and seeks to understand how nuanced, natural variation in experience shapes the human mind and brain.
Many of the studies Bedny discussed have very important linguistic components. In one trial, she investigated the meaning of verbs pertaining to light events and visual perception as compared to touch, amodal, auditory, and motion verbs.
Both blind and sighted people displayed nearly identical results when comparing the different types of verbs used in the study. This showed that there were no differences in what blind people knew about the terms. Analysis of the verbs revealed that linguistic dimensions of intensity and instability were used to evaluate the words’ comparative meanings. Blind people agreed more on the comparison of sound emission and touch perception words. This shows that blind participants have more aligned comprehension of the meanings of other sensory terms compared to sighted people.
In other cases, Bedny’s lab assessed what blind individuals know about color. One study used three object types – natural kinds, functional artifacts, and non-functional artifacts. These categories were used to evaluate agreeance not only on color, but the relevancy of color to certain objects’ functions as well.
Another crucial question of Bedny’s work looks at how the innate structure of the brain constrains cortical function. The findings show that the visual system in blind participants has been repurposed for higher cognitive functions and that portions of the visual system connected to high cognitive abilities are invaded by the visual systems. Along with repurposing visual regions for linguistic use, Bedny’s lab found that visual regions of the brain are active during numerical processing tasks too.
Blind people display additional
activity in the visual centers of their brain in numerous studies beyond having
the same regional brain responsiveness as sighted people. Though further
research is necessary, Bedny proposes that there is a sensitive period during
development that is critical to the specialization of the brain. Study participants
who have adult-onset blindness do not show the same sensitivity and patterned
responses in visual cortices repurposed for different functions as congenitally
At birth, the human cortex is pluripotent – providing the best of both worlds, Bedny said. The brain is prepared but highly flexible. Her studies have repeatedly shown that the brain is built for and transformed by language, and they underscore the importance of nature and nurture in human development.
On Friday, January 17, Duke’s From Slavery to Freedom Lab hosted a panel in conjunction with the Franklin Humanities Institute on the topic of contemporary Black arts and icons. The panel, “New Black Aesthetics,” featured speakers Rhea L. Combs, curator at the National Museum of African American & Culture, and Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art & Art History at Duke, and was one half of a two-panel conference titled “Black Images, Black Histories.”
According to Combs and Powell, the reason for the unprecedented popularity of works like the NMAAHC by contemporary Black artists is likely because they do something that other pieces and people rarely do: allow African Americans to tell the African American story.
As a museum curator, Combs doesn’t simply curate cohesive mixed-media exhibitions that shed light on the Black experience. In order to create those exhibitions, she must also dig through and analyze a wide range of old archival materials.
However, these archival materials at the NMAAHC aren’t necessarily just historical artifacts and records associated with figures like Rosa Parks or the Obamas; the Museum wants people to shuffle through their own attics to find things to donate. It demystifies the question of who belongs in a museum, according to Combs. “We create agency in terms of who gets to tell everyday stories,” she said.
She’s especially interested in the role of photography and film in African American studies. “We use cameras to culturally agitate the ways in which African Americans are understood,” she explained; the camera is a pathway into self-representation.
Captured in the Museum’s photos and moving images are stories of duplicity, or “celebrations that happened in the midst of tragedies.” Combs often finds themes of faith and activism as well as education and uplift, but she says that there’s plenty of variety within those overarching ideas. A photo of boys playing basketball on unicycles, for example.
“Art creates social understanding of who we are,” Combs said. Like hip-hop remixes and re-envisions things that are already understood in one way, so too does the NMAAHC.
On a similar vein, Powell’s presentation focused on the famous Obama portraits, and I’m guessing you might already know which ones I’m referring to. A fully-suited Barack Obama, seated in a wooden chair against a lush green background of flora and fauna; Michelle Obama in a flowing black-and-white colorblock dress, her chin resting on the back of her hand.
While the portraits are visually exceptional, Powell said their context is what envelops. These images of the first Black U.S. president and first lady do allude to the old, white traditions of portraiture, “but they dismantle the genre’s conventional outcomes” for something new, he explained.
The portrait of Barack Obama is, visually, extremely similar to those of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Likewise, Michelle Obama’s portrait quite closely resembles that of Madame Moitessier, for example. But unlike these representations of pre-21st-century white men and women, the Obama portraits finally depict people of color. According to Powell, portraits elevate status, and it isn’t very often that you see Black individuals portrayed.
And yet there’s also a sad irony involved, Powell explained. Especially for other similar contemporary works of portraiture that depict Black people, there’s a decorative, incongruous grandeur that highlights the tension between social realities and the manner of portrayal. For instance, “saintly” portraits exist of Black men wearing urban clothing, but despite whatever “saintliness” might be visually depicted, the realities of Blackness in the inner cities of America is often far from positive.
One of the most striking features of the Barack Obama portrait is the blooming greenery behind the former president. It’s a metaphor of sorts, Powell said: social and historical context isn’t absent from art. Or, in other words, “The world can never be left out of the garden.”