Peak achievement in the sciences isn’t measured by stopwatches or goals scored, it goes by citations – the number of times other scientists have referenced your findings in their own academic papers. A high number of citations is an indication that a particular work was influential in moving the field forward.
And the peak of this peak is the annual “Highly Cited Researchers” list produced each year by the folks at Clarivate, who run the Institute for Scientific Information. The names on this list are drawn from publications that rank in the top 1% by citations for field and publication year in the Web of Science™ citation index – the most-cited of the cited.
Duke has 38 names on the highly cited list this year — including Bob Lefkowitz twice because he’s just that good — and two colleagues at the Duke NUS Medical School in Singapore. In all, the 2021 list includes 6,602 researchers from more than 70 countries.
The ISI says that US scientists are a little less than 40 percent of the highly cited list this year – and dropping. Chinese researchers are gaining, having nearly doubled their presence on the roster in the last four years.
“The headline story is one of sizeable gains for Mainland China and a decline for the United States, particularly when you look at the trends over the last four years,” said a statement from David Pendlebury, Senior Citation Analyst at the Institute for Scientific Information. “(This reflects) a transformational rebalancing of scientific and scholarly contributions at the top level through the globalization of the research enterprise.”
Without further ado, let’s see who our champions are!
Hey everyone! My name is Vibhav Nandagiri, I use he/him/his pronouns, and I’m currently a first-year student at Duke. Amidst the sea of continuous transition brought upon by college, one area of my identity that has stayed fairly constant is my geography. I’ve lived in North Carolina for sixteen of my eighteen years, and my current home lies just twenty minutes from campus in sunny, suburban Cary, NC.
The two missing years are accounted for through my adventures in my parents’ hometown–Hyderabad, India–as a toddler. Spending some of my earliest years surrounded by a large and loving family impacted my life profoundly, forever cementing a strong connection to my emotional, cultural, and linguistic roots.
The latter had a secondary impact on me, one I wouldn’t discover until my parents enrolled me in preschool after returning to the States. With hubris, I marched into my first day of class, ready to seize the day, until I soon discovered an uncomfortable fact: I couldn’t speak English. I am told through some unfortunate stories that I struggled considerably during my first month in a new, Anglicized environment; however, I soon learned the quirks of this language, and two-year-old me, perhaps realizing that he had some catching up to do, fully immersed himself in the English language.
Nowadays, I read quite a bit. Fiction and journalism, academic and satire, I firmly believe that all styles of literature play a role in educating people on the ebbs and flows of our world. In recent years, I’ve developed a thematic fascination with the future. The genre of far-future science fiction, with its rich exploration of hypothetical advanced societies, has led me to ask pressing questions about the future of the human species. How will society organize itself politically? What are the ethical implications of future medical advancements? Will we achieve a healthy symbiosis with technology? As a Duke Research Blogger, I hope to find answers to these questions while getting a front-row, multidisciplinary seat to what the future has to offer. It’s an invigorating opportunity to grow as a writer and communicator, to have my curiosity piqued on a weekly basis, to understand the futuristic visions of innovators at the top of their field.
Prior to Duke, I had the opportunity to conduct research at the Appalachian State University Pediatric Exercise and Physiology Lab, where I co-authored a published paper about adolescent fat metabolism. Not only was I introduced to the academic research process, but I also learned the importance of communicating my findings clearly through writing and presentations. I intend to bring these valuable lessons and perspectives to the Duke Research Blog.
Beyond exercise science, I am intrigued by a diverse range of research areas, from Public Health to Climate Change to Business to Neuroscience, the latter of which I hope to explore further through the Cognitive Neuroscience and Law FOCUS. I was drawn to the program for the opportunity to build strong relationships with professors and investigators; I intend to approach my work at the Duke Research Blog with a similar keenness to listen and connect with researchers and readers alike. When I’m not reading or typing away furiously at my computer, you can find me hitting on the tennis courts, singing Choral or Indian Classical music, or convincing my friends that my music taste is better than theirs.
Dr. Bryan Batch, a Duke endocrinologist and researcher, studies treating metabolic disorders (like diabetes) with non-pharmacological approaches. But, she says, her parents’ medical professions, and the hard work that went into them, resulted in her not wanting to pursue science at all as a child.
When she took biology in middle school however, it clicked. It didn’t feel like “the slog of math,” she says, because she enjoyed studying life in its different forms. This infatuation with science combined with a love for other people pushed her to pursue medicine.
Now, Dr. Batch focuses on racial disparities. She says that a huge issue with disparities, whether they involve race, poverty, food insecurity, educational opportunity, or health insurance, is that they are often driven by policy. “We are not trained to know how to affect change in policy in medical school — it’s not something we are taught. But I do think if physicians got more involved in politics and policy we would be able to make significant positive impact.”
What she does try to do is adapt to individual patient needs in the moment. Her work at Duke signifies what she, as a healthcare provider, can do within the time spent with patients to interact in the best way possible. For example, she can understand if someone has a literacy issue and adapt her methods of explanation so that their literacy doesn’t hinder their understanding. While it can be challenging for one person to change systemic issues or share lived experiences with people of different backgrounds, Dr. Batch makes every effort to create a comfortable environment where she is able to leave a positive impact.
These impacts have no doubt been affected by COVID-19, which Dr. Batch describes as one of the most challenging experiences in her twenty years of practicing medicine. Although telephone and video conferencing have been available for years, Dr. Batch explains that only now is there a drive to put them to use. “It was like someone came up behind you and just whacked you on the head,” she says — no warning, no time to get organized.
Dr. Batch feels lucky to be in endocrinology, where there is flexibility for remote visits. Yet, even when patients do have the chance to have an in-person visit, some don’t want to. If they do, the physical separation, masks, and face shields create a feeling of distance. Dr. Batch spends much of her clinical time at the Durham Veteran Affairs Hospital, across the street from Duke Hospital, where many hearing-impaired patients have difficulty understanding her words because her mask takes away the ability to read lips.
Dr. Batch says that even after the pandemic has passed, more than 30% of visits may remain over the telephone, which can give patients increased access to their doctors.
The challenges have infiltrated her research too, where now the only people she can bring in are those who need to visit the VA Medical Center for another reason anyway, like going to the eye doctor. Overall, she says, she has been surrounded by phenomenal people who rolled up their sleeves and said “let’s get it done.” Still, it has been exhausting.
To her, family is everything, and she tries her best to stay in touch with the people who matter most as a way to get through it all.
Even before COVID-19, Dr. Batch has been intentional about living her life to the fullest and staying true to her core values. If that means rescheduling things at work to be with her kids, she is unapologetic. She chose endocrinology as a specialty in part because it’s very family-oriented, and she feels lucky to have colleagues who understand the flexibility she values. Her ultimate goal is to leave a mark on the world but she also wants her happiness to come from what matters, so she stays close to her big family and lots of friends.
While sacrifices are inevitable in any career, Dr. Batch tries not to make large ones on the homefront. She takes it day by day, week by week, she says, to make it such that “work” and “life” are in harmony as much as possible. It is easy to get caught up and have the years go by, one day realizing that the important people have pulled away. Dr. Batch is deliberate about making the time for these people, including her two children and husband.
Dr. Batch is a role model for young people, particularly for women of color. She shared an anecdote about her inattentive high school counselor, to whom she went for a signature on her college application list. Seeing Yale, Harvard, and Brown, he told her that she was “reaching too high.” Batch responded, “I’m not here for your opinion on this list. I’m here for you to sign this form..
She ended up at Yale.
She says she had the courage to talk back to the counselor because her parents instilled the idea of working hard and pushing higher. What matters, she says, is believing in yourself and surrounding yourself with people who believe in you.
Unfortunately, Batch said, underestimation by others resonated throughout her college, medical school, residency, and fellowship, because she is a woman or because she is Black.
At the end of the day, Dr. Bryan Batch never let other people define her experience but instead allowed her hard work to prove her value and propel her to always reach higher.
Guest Post by Viha Patel, Class of 2021, NC School of Science and Math
Imagine a live, health-focused version Shark Tank open to the public: presentations
from real health professionals,
presenting real innovations they developed
to address real health care issues.
And yes, there are real money awards
At ten minutes ‘til show time, people gather in small groups
clothed in suits, business attire, and white coats. They chat in low voices. The
hum of comfortable conversation buzzes through the room. The sixth floor of the
Semans Center is quite the setting. Three sides of the room are
encapsulated in glass and you can easily see an expansive view of both Duke’s
West and Medical campuses, as well as luscious green trees comprising parts of
Duke’s Forest. Naturally, there is a glorious view of the Chapel, basked in
This light finds its way into the room to shine on various
research posters at the back displayed on a few rows of mobile walls. Though a
few strays meander through the stationary arrangements – stopping to look more
closely at particular findings – most people make their way into the room and
find a seat as the minutes dwindle away. The hum grows and there is a bit of anticipatory
energy among those readying themselves to present.
At three minutes after 10, the program director of the Duke
Institute for Health Innovation, Suresh Balu,
takes position at the front of the room, standing before the small stage at
center that is surrounded by lots of TV monitors. No seat in the room is a bad
one. Balu indicates that it is time to begin and the hum immediately
dissipates. He explains the general format of the event: six pitches total,
five minutes to present, eight minutes to answer questions from investors, a
show-of-hand interest from investors, and transition to the next pitch,
followed by deliberation and presentation of awards.
After a round of thanks, introduction of the emcee – Duke’s
Chief of Cardiology, Dr. Manesh Patel – the curtains opened – figuratively – on
Duke’s fifth annual Innovation
Groups presented on the problems they were addressing, their
proposed innovations, and how the innovations worked. There was also
information about getting products into the market, varying economic analysis,
next steps or detailed goals for the projection of the projects, and analysis
of the investment they are currently seeking and for what purposes.
The first group pitched an idea about patient-centric blood
draw and suggest a device to plug into existing peripheral draws to reduce the frequent
poking and prodding that hospital patients often experience during their hospital
stay when blood is needed for lab tests. Next up was a group who designed an
intelligent microscope for automated pathology that has a programmable system and
uses machine learning to automate pathological blood analysis that is currently
highly time consuming. Third at bat was a group that made a UV light bag to
clean surgical drain bags that frequently become colonized with bacteria and
are quite frankly “nasty” – according to the presenter.
Batting cleanup was PILVAS – Peripherally Inserted Left
Ventricular Vent Anticoagulation System – which is a device that would be
accessory to VA
ECMO support to reduce thromboembolism and
stroke that are risks of ECMO. Fifth was the ReadyView and ReadyLift, a laparoscopic
tool set that is much cheaper than current laparoscopic tools and methods, and
because of its ability to be used with any USB compatible laptop, it would
increase access to laparoscopic surgery in countries that have a high need for
it. Last, but not least, was an innovation that is the first synthetic
graft for knee cartilage repair that hopes to improve knee osteoarthritis surgical
care as the first hydrogel
with the same mechanical properties of cartilage.
Following a quick ten-minute break for investors to huddle
around and discuss who should win the awards – $15,000 for Best Innovation and
$15,000 for Best Presentation – the winners were announced. Drumroll, please.
ReadyView won Best Presentation and the synthetic
osteochondral graft won Best Innovation. A pair of representatives from
Microsoft were also in attendance – a first for the Innovation Jam – and
awarded SalineAI, the group who designed the intelligent microscope with an
independent award package.
Patel, the emcee, says we are in the midst of a fourth
“What is the biggest cinema in the world?” Patel asked.
“Netflix,” he says. Industries are reimagining themselves and healthcare is no
What is the best healthcare system of the future going to
look like? Of course, we really don’t know, but there are certainly people who
are already doing more than just think about it.
Experiencing cardiac arrest can be compared to being in a hot air balloon in a room that is rapidly filling with water. You are trapped, desperately aware of the danger you are in, and running out of time.
Andrew Landstrom, PHD, MD, shared this metaphor with his audience in the Duke Medicine Pavilion last Thursday, and a wave of empathy flooded through his listeners. He works as an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in Duke University’s School of Medicine, and devotes his time and energy to studying the genetic and molecular causes of sudden cardiac death in the young.
For families of children who have died suddenly and unexpectedly, the worst thing of all is hearing their doctors say, “we have no idea why.” A third of sudden death cases in children have negative autopsies, which means these children die with no explanation.
When faced with an inconclusive autopsy, everyone wants answers. Why did these children die? How do we know it’s a problem with the heart? What can be done about it? What does it mean for the siblings of the child who died?
It has since been discovered that many of these unexplained deaths are actually the result of cardiac channelopathies, which are DNA mutations that cause ion channel defects in heart cell proteins. These mutations can mess up the electrical activity of the heart and cause a heart to beat in an irregular rhythm, which can have fatal consequences. Since this is a molecular problem, and not a structural one, it cannot be identified with a conventional autopsy, and requires a deeper level of genetic and molecular analysis.
One type of channelopathy is a condition known as CPVT, which is short for catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia. This potentially life-threatening genetic disorder is the result of a point mutation in the genome, which means that one tiny nucleotide being changed in the DNA can lead to the single most fatal arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm) known.
Sixty percent of children suffering from CPVT have a mutation in their RYR2 gene. This gene encodes for a protein that is found in cardiac muscle, and is a key player in how calcium is processed in heart cells. The mutated version of this gene results in proteins that let way too much calcium flood the cell, which can cause fatal changes in heart rhythm.
Dr. Landstrom has been using genome research to identify and explain sudden cardiac death in children, but the human genome doesn’t always provide straightforward answers. The problem is, a mutation in the RYR2 gene doesn’t always mean a person will have CPVT, and having an incidental RYR2 gene is much more common than being diagnosed with CPVT. Dr. Landstrom is studying this gene to try to figure out which variants are pathologic, and which are physiological.
“The human genome is a lot more confusing than I think I gave it credit for, and we’re just learning to deal with that confusion now,” he admitted to his audience Feb. 14.
If a variant is falsely identified as pathologic, a patient will be given incorrect therapies, and suffer through unnecessary procedures. However, if a variant is falsely identified as physiological, and the patient isn’t given the necessary treatment, there will be no mitigation of the patient’s life threatening disease. Neither of these are good outcomes, so it’s very important to get it right. The current models for predicting pathogenicity are poor, and Dr. Landstrom is looking to design new model that will be able to avoid the personal, subjective opinions of human doctors and determine if a variant is pathologic or not.
Another area that is of interest to Dr. Landstrom is the problem of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which affects about six in every 10,000 infants, and cannot be diagnosed before death. He is on the search for a biomarker that would be able to predict an infant’s vulnerability to SIDS, and thinks that these deaths may be related to elevated levels of serotonin. Finding a marker like this would allow doctors to save many healthy infants from unexplained death. Dr. Landstrom knows its not easy research and admitted “we have to fail — we are meant to fail,” on the path to success. He is very aware of both the ethical complexity and the exciting implications of genome research at Duke, and committed to converting his research into patient care.
X-ray vision just got cooler. A technique developed in recent years boosts researchers’ ability to see through the body and capture high-resolution images of animals inside and out.
This special type of 3-D scanning reveals not only bones, teeth and other hard tissues, but also muscles, blood vessels and other soft structures that are difficult to see using conventional X-ray techniques.
There, the specimens are stained with an iodine solution that helps soft tissues absorb X-rays, then placed in a micro-CT scanner, which takes thousands of X-ray images from different angles while the specimen spins around. A computer then stitches the scans into digital cross sections and stacks them, like slices of bread, to create a virtual 3-D model that can be rotated, dissected and measured as if by hand.
Here’s a look at some of the images they’ve taken:
If you get flushed after a workout, you’re not alone — the Caribbean anemone shrimp does too.
Recent Duke Ph.D. Laura Bagge was scuba diving off the coast of Belize when she noticed the transparent shrimp Ancylomenes pedersoni turn from clear to cloudy after rapidly flipping its tail.
To find out why exercise changes the shrimp’s complexion, Bagge and Duke professor Sönke Johnsen and colleagues compared their internal anatomy before and after physical exertion using diceCT.
In the shrimp cross sections in this video, blood vessels are colored blue-green, and muscle is orange-red. The researchers found that more blood flowed to the tail after exercise, presumably to deliver more oxygen-rich blood to working muscles. The increased blood flow between muscle fibers causes light to scatter or bounce in different directions, which is why the normally see-through shrimp lose their transparency.
Peer inside the leg of a mouse
Duke cardiologist Christopher Kontos, M.D., and MD/PhD student Hasan Abbas have been using the technique to visualize the inside of a mouse’s leg.
The researchers hope the images will shed light on changes in blood vessels in people, particularly those with peripheral artery disease, in which plaque buildup in the arteries reduces blood flow to the extremities such as the legs and feet.
The micro-CT scanner at Duke’s Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility made it possible for Abbas and Kontos to see structures as small as 13 microns, or a fraction of the width of a human hair, including muscle fibers and even small arteries and veins in 3-D.
Take a tour through a tree shrew
DiceCT imaging allows Heather Kristjanson at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to digitally dissect the chewing muscles of animals such as this tree shrew, a small mammal from Southeast Asia that looks like a cross between a mouse and a squirrel. By virtually zooming in and measuring muscle volume and the length of muscle fibers, she hopes to see how strong they were. Studying such clues in modern mammals helps Kristjanson and colleagues reconstruct similar features in the earliest primates that lived millions of years ago.
Try it for yourself
Students and instructors who are interested in trying the technique in their research are eligible to apply for vouchers to cover SMIF fees. People at Duke University and elsewhere are encouraged to apply. For more information visit https://smif.pratt.duke.edu/Funding_Opportunities, or contact Dr. Mark Walters, Director of SMIF, via email at email@example.com.
We are told time and time again that Duke is a global university, one that transcends borders and takes interdisciplinary education to the next level.
On Monday, I was able to experience this international mindset firsthand at the Peru Health Symposium, a conference that celebrated a decade of culminating research efforts by Duke in Peru.
The symposium was organized by Dr. William Pan, a professor of Global Environmental Health at Duke who has worked on many research projects in Peru ranging from reproductive health to tuberculosis. In his opening remarks, Pan said the trademark interdisciplinary nature of Duke has allowed it to succeed as a research institution in Peru, along with its affiliation to pioneers in Peruvian health/environmental research, like John Terborgh.
“We are standing on the shoulders of giants,” said Pan. During the first panel, several research projects were presented.
Helena Frischtak conducting research with Peruvian children in the field.
Helena Frischtak, a 4th year medical student at UVA and former Doris Duke Fellow spent a year studying the neurological effects of mercury exposure on children. She performed basic neurological exams, along with cognitive tests amongst 5-11 year-old children, and preliminary data suggests potential impacts of mercury exposure on cognitive development.
Marlee Krieger of the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies presented a cervical cancer treatment that brings colposcopy into the primary care setting. When one is screened for cervical cancer, a pap smear is first conducted and if abnormalities are detected, a colposcopy is performed and tissue is biopsied from the cervix. This multiple-step process is tedious, and the number of patients that return for the colposcopy often declines. By combining the steps into one visit and performing it with a simpler and cheaper device, testing efficiency has increased.
Maria Lazo Porras of Cayetano Heredia University (Lima’s prominent medical university) presented findings on the effects of migration from rural to urban regions on chronic disease. Her findings suggest a correlation between urbanization and obesity, but provided surprising results that indicate higher rates of hypertension and diabetes in rural communities.
Illegal mining scars the Amazon’s lush forests and flushes mercury runoff into streams.
Students doing research in the Amazon presented posters of their findings to faculty members of the Nicolas School and DGHI.
The main theme resonating throughout the conference was the need for collaboration not only to address public/environmental health concerns, but to organize symposiums like this one. The culmination of efforts by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS), DGHI, and the Nicholas School have fueled the Peru project’s palpable success.
Below is the link to the documentary shown at the symposium:
http://www.daughterofthelake.pe/ – “Hija de la Laguna” (Daughter of the Lake), 2015. The documentary tells the story of how a Peruvian woman used her powers to stop illegal mining from destroying the lake in her community; a lake that to her, represents her mother’s spirit.
A recent study finds that lifetime stress in a population of African Americans causes chemical changes to their DNA that may be associated with an increased risk of aging related diseases.
(Image: Rhonda Baer, National Cancer Institute)
Using a previously established DNA-based predictor of age known as the “epigenetic clock,” researchers found that a cohort of highly-traumatized African Americans were more likely to show aging-associated biochemical signatures in their DNA’s epigenetic clock regions at an earlier age than what would otherwise be predicted by their chronological age.
These chemical alterations to DNA’s epigenetic clock were found to be a result of hormonal changes that occur during the body’s stress response and corresponded to genetic profiles associated with aging-related diseases.
The study was performed by researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Germany, including Duke University adjunct faculty and psychiatrist Dr. Anthony S. Zannas. The findings were published in a recent issue of Genome Biology.
“Our genomes have likely not evolved to tolerate the constant pressure that comes with today’s fast-paced society,” says lead author Zannas.
Though it may come as no surprise that chronic stress is detrimental to human health, these findings provide a novel biological mechanism for the negative effects of cumulative lifetime stressors, such as those that can come with being a discriminated minority.
Epigenetics is the study of how environmental factors switch our genes on or off. The epigenetic clock is comprised of over 300 sites in our DNA that are subject to a certain chemical modification known as methylation, which physically prevents those sites from being expressed (i.e., turns them off). Conversely, areas within the epigenetic clock can also be de-methylated to turn genes on. Each methylation event can be thought of as a tick of the epigenetic clock’s metaphorical second-hand, corresponding to the passing of physiological time.
During times of stress, a family of hormones known as glucocorticoids becomes elevated throughout the body. These glucocorticoids cause the chemical addition or removal of methyl groups to areas of DNA that the authors found to be located in the same regions that comprise the epigenetic clock. What’s more, the specific changes in methylation were found to correspond with gene expression profiles associated with coronary artery disease, arteriosclerosis, and leukemias.
This link between stress, glucocorticoids, and the epigenetic clock provides evidence that lifetime stress experienced by highly traumatized African Americans promotes physiological changes that affect their overall health and longevity.
The authors make an important distinction between cumulative lifetime stress and current stress. A small number of instances of acute stress may result in a correspondingly small number of methylation changes in the epigenetic clock, but it is the cumulative methylation events from chronic stress that give rise to lasting physiological detriments.
Though the authors make no direct claims regarding the physiological effects of racial inequities prevalent in today’s society, the findings perhaps shed light on the health disparities observed between disadvantaged African American populations and more privileged demographics, including increased mortality rates for cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
Glucocorticoids become elevated during the body’s stress response and lead to changes in DNA methylation that promote the expression of genes associated with aging. Illustration by Katy Riccione
Interestingly, the epigenetic effects of lifetime stress were blunted in individuals who underwent significant childhood trauma, suggesting that early trauma may trigger mechanisms of physiological resilience to chronic stress later in life. In other words, if racial minorities are more likely to face hardships during their upbringing, perhaps they are also better prepared to cope with the chronic stress that comes with, for instance, losing a job or ending a marriage.
Though the study relies on data from an African American cohort, Dr. Zannas believes that the same conclusions are likely applicable to other highly stressed populations: chronic stress leads to lasting changes in our epigenome that may increase our likelihood of aging-related diseases, while acute stress was not found to have any long-term epigenetic effects.
So a single tough calculus exam won’t shave years off of your life, but consistent 80-hour work weeks just may.
In a world where everyday stress is unavoidable, whether it be from the hardships faced as a minority or the demands of being a full-time student, what lifestyle choices can we make to limit the detriments to our health? Dr. Zannas emphasizes that the “solution is not to avoid all stressors, but to prevent excessive stressors when possible and to learn to live with unavoidable stress constructively.”
The study underscores the importance of stress management on our general well-being. Future research may highlight the direct chemical benefits to our epigenome that are afforded by mindfulness, psychotherapy, diet/exercise, and other modes of stress relief. “Learning to better cope with stress is the best way to reduce our physiological response to it and the resultant harmful effects.”
Guest Post by Katy Riccione, Ph.D. Candidate in Biomedical Engineering
“All these complicated diseases that we don’t have a good handle on — they all have this mechanical component. Well why is that?”
Brent Hoffman is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering
This is exactly the question Brent Hoffman, Duke biomedical engineering assistant professor, is helping answer. Many of the common diseases that we fear have a mechanical component. In asthma attacks, a chemical or physical stimulus causes the air channels in the lung to shut as the muscles that control the width of the channel contract– the mechanical component.
Another example is atherosclerosis, commonly known as the hardening of the arteries, the leading killer in developed countries. Instead of air flow, blood flow is affected as the walls of the blood vessels get thicker. Factors such as smoking, being overweight, and having high cholesterol increase the chance of getting this disease. However, examining the mechanical portion, the plaques associated with atherosclerosis tend to occur at certain parts of the blood vessels, where they branch or curve. You can think of it like a hose. When you kink a hose or put your thumb over the nozzle, the fluid flows in a different way. Hoffman said there are similar stories concerning mechanical portions of major diseases, such as muscular dystrophy and breast cancer.
Hoffman’s lab is building tension sensors to measure forces during collective cell migration.
This all sounds very biological, so why is he in the engineering department? As mechanobiology is a new field, there are few tools available for reporting a protein’s shape or its forces inside living cells. Hoffman makes the tools enabling the study of mechanobiology. During Hoffman’s postdoctoral research, he worked on recording forces across proteins in living cells, their natural environment. Now, he’s expanding that technology and using it to do basic science studies to understand mechanobiology.
Hoffman said he hadn’t planned this. From high school, he knew he wanted to be an engineer. As an undergraduate, Hoffman interned at IBM, where he worked on the production of chip carriers using copper-plating. Hoffman was able to apply knowledge, such as changing pH to get various amounts of copper, and make everything perform at optimal performance, but he wanted to know more about the processes.
So he set out to get his Ph.D in process control, which involves deciding how to set all the numbers and dials on the equipment, how large the tank should be, what pressure and temperature should be used, etc. in chemical plants. Hoffman was set on the path to become a chemical engineer. However, during the first week of graduate school, he attended a biophysics talk, in which he understood very little. Biophysics interested Hoffman, so he went from intending to do research on one of the most applied engineering projects on campus to arguably one of the least applied in a week. This was the beginning of his biophysics journey. However, as his Ph. D was much more heavily interested in the physics aspect, Hoffman chose to do his postdoc in cell biology to balance his training. Mixing everything together, he got biomedical engineering.
Hoffman reflects that his decisions were logical, but he had not planned to take the route he did. Hoffman cautions that it is better to have a plan than not because if you do not plan, you won’t know where you are going. However, he advises that since a person learns more about likes and dislikes as one proceeds on their route, students should not be afraid to incorporate what they learn into their plans.
Hoffman’s journey is characterized by finding and doing what he enjoyed. Trained in both the worlds of physics and biology, but never intending to pursue a future in either, Hoffman is uniquely suited for his current position in the revolutionary emerging field of mechanobiology. He is able to put his biology hat on and his physicist hat on for a bit, while the engineer in him is thinking, “is any of this practical?”
“If you had to pick out the key to my success, it would be doing that,” Hoffman said.
Guest Post by Amanda Li, a senior at the North Carolina School of Science and Math
He said nicotine replacement is delivered at a slower rate and a lower dose than in actual cigarettes, so it fails to curb craving among smokers. Replacements also don’t replicate one of the main sensory behaviors of smoking: inhalation.
Rose discussed a study in which he and his colleagues anesthetized participants’ airways to see if they could detect the smoke, while keeping the same dose of nicotine to the brain. When participants couldn’t feel the smoke as much, there were more cravings for cigarettes and less satisfaction.
An e-cigarette vaporizes nicotine with battery power, avoiding the combustion byproducts of burning tobacco. (via Wikimedia Commons)
They’ve also found that replacement treatments, when given on a temporary basis of just one year, often resulted in relapse.
So what does an e-cigarette actually do? The battery of this electronic cigarette heats an oil that vaporizes the nicotine with a substance called propylene glycol. The gas is released and condenses immediately into a cloud of smoke.
Why is the e-cigarette safer? It’s the combustion products in smoke, rather than the nicotine, that are responsible for most smoking-related disease. Rose cited the 2010 Surgeon General’s Report that backs up this claim that nicotine itself is not responsible for cardiovascular problems or cancers.
Rose thinks that e-cigarettes could be the best of both worlds, allowing smokers the same sensory effects they enjoy, while possibly avoiding other health hazards of regular cigarette smoking.
Rose also addressed concerns about formaldehyde being present in e-cigarettes. He says this is rare, and only occurs with e-cigarettes that have higher voltages which causes overheating to occur. While there is evidence from two trials that the new devices help smokers to stop smoking long-term compared with placebo, unfortunately, very few studies have looked at this issue. Rose also shares concerns that the new product could be picked up by youth who wouldn’t normally smoke cigarettes, or serve as a gateway between e-cigarettes and real ones.
In the end, however, he thinks this product has the potential to be highly effective in treating addiction, and hopes it will be evaluated further.
“The agency that has to sort through this is the FDA,” he said. “They have to prove that it will help society as a whole. It has to benefit the health of the population.”