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A Grueling Math Test So Hard, Almost No One Gets a Perfect Score

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Yet hundreds of schools compete each year, and this time the Blue Devils made it into the top three

Duke places 3 out of 471 in North America’s most prestigious math competition. The top-scoring 2023 Putnam team consisted of (from L to R): Erick Jiang ’26, Kai Wang ’27, and Fletch Rydell ’26.
Duke placed third out of 471 schools in North America’s most prestigious math competition, the Putnam. The top-scoring team consisted of (L to R): Erick Jiang ’26, Kai Wang ’27, and Fletch Rydell ’26.

Every year, thousands of college students from across the U.S. and Canada give up a full Saturday before finals begin to take a notoriously difficult, 6-hour math test — and not for a grade, but for fun.

In “the Putnam,” as it’s known, contestants spend two 3-hour sessions trying to solve 12 proof-based math problems worth 10 points apiece.

More than 150,000 people have taken the exam in the contest’s 85-year history, but only five times has someone earned a perfect score. Total scores of 1 or 0 are not uncommon.

Despite the odds, the Blue Devils had a strong showing this year.

A total of 3,857 students from 471 schools competed in the December contest. In results announced Feb. 16, a Duke team consisting of Erick Jiang ’26, James “Fletch” Rydell ’26 and Kaixin “Kai” Wang ’27 ranked third in North America behind MIT and Harvard, winning a $15,000 prize for Duke and each taking home $600 for themselves.

According to mathematics professor Lenny Ng, it’s Duke’s best performance in almost 20 years.

“This is the first time a Duke team has placed this high since 2005,” said Ng, who was a three-time Putnam Fellow himself, finishing in the top five each year he was an undergraduate at Harvard.

Duke students sit for an all-day math marathon.

There’s no official syllabus for prepping for the Putnam. To get ready, the students practice working through problems and discussing their solutions in a weekly problem-solving seminar held each fall.

Students serve as the instructors, focusing on a different topic each week ranging from calculus to number theory.

“They get a sense of what the problems are like, so it’s not quite as intimidating as it might be if they went into the contest cold,” said math department chair Robert Bryant.

“Not only do they learn how to do the problems, but they also get to know each other,” said professor emeritus David Kraines, who has coached Duke Putnam participants for more than 30 years.

Kraines said 8-10 students take his problem-solving seminar for credit each fall. “We always get another 10 or so who come for the pizza,” Kraines said.

The biggest difference between a Putnam problem and a homework problem, said engineering student Rydell, is that usually with a homework problem you’ve already been shown what to do; you just have to apply it.

Whereas most of the time in math competitions like the Putnam, “there’s no clear path forward when you first see the problem,” Rydell said. “They’re more about finding some insight or way of looking at the problem in a different perspective.”

Putnam problems are meant to be solvable using only paper and pencil — no computing power required. The contestants work through each problem by hand, trying different paths towards a solution and spelling out their reasoning step-by-step.

This year, one problem involved determining how many configurations of coins are possible given a grid with coins sitting in some of the squares, if those coins are only allowed to move in certain ways.

Another question required knowing something about the geometry of a 20-sided shape known as a icosahedron.

“That was the one I struggled with the most,” said Wang, whose individual score nevertheless tied him for sixth place overall out of 3,857 contestants.

A sample of problems from the 84th Putnam Competition.

The most common question he gets asked about the Putnam, Rydell said, is not so much what’s on the test, but why people take it in the first place.

This year’s test was so challenging that a score of 78 out of 120 or better — just 65% — was enough to earn a spot in the top 10.

Most of the people who took it scored less than 10%, which means many problems went unsolved.

“For days after I took the Putnam, I would think about the problems and wonder: could I have done it better this way? You can become obsessed,” said Bryant, who took the Putnam in the 1970s as a college student at NC State.

Sophomores Jiang and Rydell, who both ranked in the top 5%, see it as an opportunity to “meet people who also enjoy problem solving,” Jiang said.

“I’m not a math major so I probably wouldn’t do much of this kind of problem solving otherwise,” Rydell said.

For Rydell it’s also the aha moment: “Just the reward of when you solve a problem, the feeling of making that breakthrough,” Rydell said.

Professor Kraines’ weekly problem-solving seminar, MATH 283S, takes place on Tuesday evenings at 6:15 p.m. during the fall semester. Registration for Fall 2024 begins April 3.

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith, Marketing & Communications

Sharing a Love of Electrical Engineering With Her Students

Note: Each year, we partner with Dr. Amy Sheck’s students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math to profile some unsung heroes of the Duke research community. This is the seventh of eight posts.

“As a young girl, I always knew I wanted to be a scientist,” Dr. Tania Roy shares as she sits in her Duke Engineering office located next to state-of-the-art research equipment.

Dr. Tania Roy of Duke Engineering

The path to achieving her dream took her to many places and unique research opportunities. After completing her bachelor’s in India, she found herself pursuing further studies at universities in the United States, eventually receiving her Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. 

Throughout these years Roy was able to explore and contribute to a variety of fields within electrical engineering, including energy-efficient electronics, two-dimensional materials, and neuromorphic computing, among others. But her deepest passion and commitment is to engage upcoming generations with electrical engineering research. 

As an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering within Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, Tania Roy gets to do exactly that. She finds happiness in mentoring her passionate young students. They work on projects focused on various problems in fields such as Biomedical Engineering (BME) and Mechanical Engineering, but her special focus is Electrical Engineering. 

Roy walks through the facilities carefully explaining the purpose of each piece of equipment when we run into one of her students. She explains how his project involves developing hardware for artificial intelligence, and the core idea of computer vision. 

Roy in her previous lab at the University of Central Florida. (UCF photo)

Through sharing her passion for electrical engineering, Roy hopes to motivate and inspire a new generation. 

“The field of electrical engineering is expected to experience immense growth in the future, especially with the recent trends in technological development,” she says, explaining that there needs to be more interest in the field of electrical engineering for the growth to meet demand. 

The recent shortage of semiconductor chips for the industrial market is an example of this. It poses a crucial problem to the supply and demand of various products that rely on these fundamental components, Roy says. By increasing the interest of students, and therefore increasing the number of students pursuing electrical engineering, we can build a foundation for the advancement of technologies powering our society today, says Roy.

Coming with a strong background of research herself, she is well equipped for the role of advocate and mentor. She has worked with gallium nitride for high voltage breakdowns. This is when the insulation between two conductors or electrical components fails, allowing electrical current to flow through the insulation. This breakdown usually occurs when the voltage across the insulating material exceeds a certain threshold known as the breakdown voltage.

In electric vehicles, high breakdown voltage is crucial for several reasons related to the safety, performance, and efficiency of the vehicle’s electrical system, and Roy’s work directly impacts this. She has also conducted extensive research on 2D materials and their photovoltaic capabilities, and is currently working on developing brain-inspired computer architectures for machine learning algorithms. Similar to the work of her student, this research utilizes the structure of the human brain to model an architecture for AI, replicating the synapses and neural connections.

As passionate as she is about research, she shares that she used to love to go to art galleries and look at paintings, “I could do it for hours,” Roy says. Currently, if she is not actively pursuing her research, she enjoys spending time with her two young children. 

“I hope to share my dream with this new generation,” Roy concludes.

Guest post by Sutharsika Kumar, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Class of 2024

Inventors, Assemble: The Newest Gadgets Coming Out of Duke

What do a smart toilet, an analog film app, and metamaterial computer chips have in common? They were all invented at Duke!

The Office for Translation & Commercialization—which supports Duke innovators bringing new technologies to market—recently hosted its fifth annual Invented at Duke celebration. With nine featured inventors and 300 attendees, it was an energetic atmosphere to network and learn.

Attendees mingle in Penn Pavilion. Credit: Brian Mullins Photography.

When event organizer Fedor Kossakovski was selecting booths, the name of the game was diversity—from medicine to art, from graduate students to faculty. “Hopefully people feel like they see themselves in these [inventors] and it’s representative of Duke overall,” he said. Indeed, as I munched through my second Oreo bar from the snack table and made the rounds, this diversity became apparent. Here are just two of the inventions on display:

Guided Medical Solutions

The first thing you’ll notice at Jacob Peloquin’s booth is a massive rubber torso.

As he replaces a punctured layer of rubber skin with a shiny new one, Peloquin beckons us over to watch. Using his OptiSETT device, he demonstrates easy insertion and placement of a chest tube.

“Currently, the method that’s used is you make an incision, and then place your fingers through, and then take the tube and place that between your fingers,” Peloquin explained. This results in a dangerously large incision that cuts through fascia and muscle; in fact, one-third of these procedures currently end in complications.

Peloquin’s device is a trocar—a thin plastic cylinder with a pointed tip at one end and tubing coming out of the other. It includes a pressure-based feedback system that tells you exactly how deep to cut, avoiding damage to the lungs or liver, and a camera to aid placement. Once the device is inserted, the outer piece can be removed so only the tubing remains.

Peloquin demonstrates his OptiSETT device. Credit: Brian Mullins Photography.

Peloquin—a mechanical engineering graduate student—was originally approached by the surgeons behind OptiSETT to assist with 3D printing. “They needed help, so I kind of helped those initial prototypes, then we realized there might be a market for this,” he said. Now, as he finishes his doctorate, he has a plethora of opportunities to continue working on OptiSETT full-time—starting a company, partnering with the Department of Defense, and integrating machine learning to interpret the camera feed.

It’s amazing how much can change in a couple years, and how much good a rubber torso can do.

GRIP Display

This invention is for my fellow molecular biology enthusiasts—for the lovers of cells, genes, and proteins!

The theme of Victoria Goldenshtein’s booth is things that stick together. It features an adorable claw machine that grabs onto its stuffed animal targets, and a lime green plastic molecule that can grab DNA. Although the molecule looks complex, Goldenshtein says its function is straightforward. “This just serves as a glue between protein and the DNA [that encodes it].”

Goldenshtein—a postdoctoral associate in biomedical engineering—uses her lime green molecular model to demonstrate GRIP’s function. Credit: Brian Mullins Photography.

Goldenshtein applies this technology to an especially relevant class of proteins—antibodies. Antibodies are produced by the immune system to bind and neutralize foreign substances like disease. They can be leveraged to create drug therapies, but first we need to know which gene corresponds to which antibody and which disease. That’s where GRIP steps in.

“You would display an antibody and you would vary the antibody—a billion different variations—and attach each one to the system. This grabs the DNA,” Goldenshtein said.

Then, you mix these billions of antibody-DNA pairs with disease cells to see which one attaches. Once you’ve found the right one, the DNA is readily available to be amplified, making an army of the same disease-battling antibody. Goldenshtein says this method of high-throughput screening can be used to find a cancer cure.

Although GRIP be but small, its applications are mighty.

Explore Other Booths

  • Coprata: a smart toilet that tracks your digestive health
  • inSoma Bio: a polymer that aids soft-tissue reconstruction
  • Spoolyard: a platform for exploring digital footage with analog film techniques
  • FaunaLabs: smart watches for our furry friends
  • G1 Optics: a tonometer to automatically detect eye pressure
  • TheraSplice: precision RNA splicing to treat cancer
  • Neurophos: metamaterial photonics for powering ultra-fast AI computation

As I finished my last Oreo bar and prepared for the trek back to East Campus, I was presented with a parting gift—a leather notebook with “Inventor” embossed on the cover. “No pressure,” said the employee who was handing them out with a wink.

I thought about the unique and diverse people I’d met that night—an undergraduate working in the Co-Lab, an ECE graduate student, and even a librarian from UNC—and smiled. As long as we each keep imagining and scribbling in our notebooks, there’s no doubt we can invent something that changes the world.

Post by Michelle Li, Class of 2027

How to be a Global Inventor

Gadgets, devices, doo-dads, oh my! The Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI)  recently hosted three of its members to lead a panel on creating medical devices for low- and middle-income countries. The event was called “Global Medical Device Innovation: Three Models for Creation and Commercialization.”

Each sought to decrease costs and increase scalability for medical procedures. In short, they are expert inventors who are doing good in the world. 

Two of the most prominent inventors of our era. Image courtesy of Disney.

We’ll go step-by-step in a moment, but to start you on your journey to being just like our panelists, here’s a short glossary:

Standard-of-care: a public health term for the way things are usually done.

IRB: institutional review board, a group of people, usually based in universities, that protect human subjects in research studies. 

Screening: when doctors look at signs your body might show to determine
whether you need to be tested for certain conditions. 

Supply-chain: the movement of materials your product goes through before, during, and after manufacturing. It is a general term for a group of different suppliers, factories, vendors, advertisers, researchers, and others that work separately. 

Regulatory pathways: supply-chain for government approvals and other paperwork you need to have before introducing your product to the public.

Step 1: Meet your Mentors

Walter Lee is Chief of Staff of the Department of Head and Neck Surgery & Communication Sciences, Co-Director of the Head and Neck Program, and an affiliate faculty member at the Duke Global Health Institute. He presented ENlyT (pronounced like en-light), a newfangled nasopharyngoscope – a camera that goes down your nose and down your throat to screen for cancer. He wants to expand with partners in Vietnam and Singapore. 

Marlee Kreiger helped found the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies at Duke in 2007. Since then, she has led the Center in many interdisciplinary and international ventures. In fact, the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies spans both the Pratt School of Engineering and the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. She presented on the Callascope, a pocket-sized colposcope – a camera device for cervical cancer screening. 

Julias Mugaga will soon be a visiting scholar at Duke – until then, he heads Design Cube at Makerere University in Uganda. He presented his KeyScope, a plug-and-play surgical camera with 0.3% of the cost of standard-of-care cameras. 

Kreiger’s presentation slides

Step 2: Name your Audience

DGHI has “global” in the name, so it is no surprise that these presenters serve communities around the world. Perhaps something that inventors like Dr. Doofenshmirtz often get wrong is that new innovation should come at the benefit of underserved communities, not at the cost of them. For Lee, that focus would be in his collaborations in Vietnam; for Mugaga it was his community in Uganda; and for Kreiger, it was the many studies conducted in Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Costa Rica, Honduras, and India.

Each of the presenters could agree that the main strategy is simple: find partners. Community members on the ground. Organizations that can benefit from your presence.

Another prominent–albeit villainous–inventor, Dr. Doofenshmirtz. Image courtesy of Disney.

Another notable aspect of your audience will be the certification you vie for. Depending on your location, you may need different permissions to distribute your product, or even begin on the journey to secure funding from certain sources.

In the United States, the most relevant regulatory pathway is FDA clearance, which is notably less restrictive than the CE mark distributed in the European Union. Both certifications are accepted in other countries, but many of the inventors on the panel opted to secure a CE mark to potentially appeal to a wider variety of governments around the world.

ISO is an international organization that is also necessary for certification, particularly if you are looking to test a medical product. No reason to be dragged down by the paperwork, though! When asked about securing Ugandan product certification, Mugaga declared, “This is one of the most exciting journeys I have taken.” His path to clearance was even more wrought with uncertainty – without steady sources of material in the Ugandan economy, it is harder to earn FDA or CE approval, two of the most widely-acknowledged certifications in the world. 

Mugaga’s presentation slides

Step 3: Test 

Now that you have permission, you can start changing lives. Many participants in our panelists’ studies were patients in community health clinics across the globe. Their partners in these clinics also had the opportunity to save tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment. While it seems like a no-brainer, there are ethical concerns that need to be addressed first. For that, you need to fill out…. You guessed it: more paperwork. IRB approval is usually granted by educational institutions (as you should recall from my handy glossary), and is crucial to secure before any testing with humans is started. In fact, the government (and most private investors) won’t even give you a second glance if you ask them for money without IRB approval. 

One big hurdle many of the panelists noted was a distrust of the technology and institution it came from – a foreign entity testing their products on you does not always invoke fear, but it certainly does not always promote trust. Kreiger noted that the work of their community health partners does the heavy lifting on that front; not only are they known community pillars, but they have authority to promote health technology through their existing relationships. If you run into trouble identifying partners in your inventorship journey–never fear. Lee has a message for you: “Ask around. At Duke, there’s always an expert around who’s willing to lend you their time.”

Step 4: Distribute

Now that you are an expert, your invention works, and you’re saving lives, you can attempt to cement your design as standard-of-care. This may look different depending on where in the world you want to distribute, but the next step is to contract a large-scale manufacturer. Your materials have been sourced by now (FDA says they better be) — so finding someone to put them together at an industrial scale should be easy! Your cost may fluctuate at this scale with the increased labor costs, but bulk production and distribution altogether should provide you, your institution, and your clients the best possible chance at changing the world. 

Lee did not receive NIH funding until his fourth attempt at applying. Kreiger did not settle on the first manufacturer contracted. Mugaga is still in the process of securing a CE mark. And yet, all of them are success stories. You can see the ENlyT saving lives in hospitals in Vietnam; you can track the reallocation of $18,000 in savings from purchasing a Calloscope; and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch Mulgaga on campus next year as a visiting scholar at Duke!

Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

Putting Stronger Guardrails Around AI

AI regulation is ramping up worldwide. Duke AI law and policy expert Lee Tiedrich discusses where we’ve been and where we’re going.
AI regulation is ramping up worldwide. Duke AI law and policy expert Lee Tiedrich discusses where we’ve been and where we’re going.

DURHAM, N.C. — It’s been a busy season for AI policy.

The rise of ChatGPT unleashed a frenzy of headlines around the promise and perils of artificial intelligence, and raised concerns about how AI could impact society without more rules in place.

Consequently, government intervention entered a new phase in recent weeks as well. On Oct. 30, the White House issued a sweeping executive order regulating artificial intelligence.

The order aims to establish new standards for AI safety and security, protect privacy and equity, stand up for workers and consumers, and promote innovation and competition. It’s the U.S. government’s strongest move yet to contain the risks of AI while maximizing the benefits.

“It’s a very bold, ambitious executive order,” said Duke executive-in-residence Lee Tiedrich, J.D., who is an expert in AI law and policy.

Tiedrich has been meeting with students to unpack these and other developments.

“The technology has advanced so much faster than the law,” Tiedrich told a packed room in Gross Hall at a Nov. 15 event hosted by Duke Science & Society.

“I don’t think it’s quite caught up, but in the last few weeks we’ve taken some major leaps and bounds forward.”

Countries around the world have been racing to establish their own guidelines, she explained.

The same day as the US-led AI pledge, leaders from the Group of Seven (G7) — which includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — announced that they had reached agreement on a set of guiding principles on AI and a voluntary code of conduct for companies.

Both actions came just days before the first ever global summit on the risks associated with AI, held at Bletchley Park in the U.K., during which 28 countries including the U.S. and China pledged to cooperate on AI safety.

“It wasn’t a coincidence that all this happened at the same time,” Tiedrich said. “I’ve been practicing law in this area for over 30 years, and I have never seen things come out so fast and furiously.”

The stakes for people’s lives are high. AI algorithms do more than just determine what ads and movie recommendations we see. They help diagnose cancer, approve home loans, and recommend jail sentences. They filter job candidates and help determine who gets organ transplants.

Which is partly why we’re now seeing a shift in the U.S. from what has been a more hands-off approach to “Big Tech,” Tiedrich said.

Tiedrich presented Nov. 15 at an event hosted by Duke Science & Society.

In the 1990s when the internet went public, and again when social media started in the early 2000s, “many governments — the U.S. included — took a light touch to regulation,” Tiedrich said.

But this moment is different, she added.

“Now, governments around the world are looking at the potential risks with AI and saying, ‘We don’t want to do that again. We are going to have a seat at the table in developing the standards.’”

Power of the Purse

Biden’s AI executive order differs from laws enacted by Congress, Tiedrich acknowledged in a Nov. 3 meeting with students in Pratt’s Master of Engineering in AI program.

Congress continues to consider various AI legislative proposals, such as the recently introduced bipartisan Artificial Intelligence Research, Innovation and Accountability Act, “which creates a little more hope for Congress,” Tiedrich said.

What gives the administration’s executive order more force is that “the government is one of the big purchasers of technology,” Tiedrich said.

“They exercise the power of the purse, because any company that is contracting with the government is going to have to comply with those standards.”

“It will have a trickle-down effect throughout the supply chain,” Tiedrich said.

The other thing to keep in mind is “technology doesn’t stop at borders,” she added.

“Most tech companies aren’t limiting their market to one or two particular jurisdictions.”

“So even if the U.S. were to have a complete change of heart in 2024” and the next administration were to reverse the order, “a lot of this is getting traction internationally,” she said.

“If you’re a U.S. company, but you are providing services to people who live in Europe, you’re still subject to those laws and regulations.”

From Principles to Practice

Tiedrich said a lot of what’s happening today in terms of AI regulation can be traced back to a set of guidelines issued in 2019 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, where she serves as an AI expert.

These include commitments to transparency, inclusive growth, fairness, explainability and accountability.

For example, “we don’t want AI discriminating against people,” Tiedrich said. “And if somebody’s dealing with a bot, they ought to know that. Or if AI is involved in making a decision that adversely affects somebody, say if I’m denied a loan, I need to understand why and have an opportunity to appeal.”

“The OECD AI principles really are the North Star for many countries in terms of how they develop law,” Tiedrich said.

“The next step is figuring out how to get from principles to practice.”

“The executive order was a big step forward in terms of U.S. policy,” Tiedrich said. “But it’s really just the beginning. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

Duke Civil Engineers Make Triumphant Return To Carolinas Symposium

After a three-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Duke’s student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) returned to the Carolinas in-person gathering. And they were in it to win it, taking home awards in four out of the five events in which they competed.

Duke sent seven Duke undergraduates to the symposium, which was hosted by The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina: Leo Lee, Harrison Kendall, Arthur Tsang, Hana Thibault, Anya Dias-Hawkins, Sarah Bailey and Grace Lee.

When not going for gold, the students also attended business meetings and professional workshops related to the civil engineering profession.

Seven students holding awards stand before the gateway of The Citidel in South Carolina at dusk.
(Left to right) Leo Lee, Harrison Kendall, Arthur Tsang, Hana Thibault, Anya Dias-Hawkins, Sarah Bailey, Grace Lee at The Citadel after the Symposium awards banquet.

Duke ASCE students also enjoyed networking with peers for the first time in years, meeting chapter members from other schools such as North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, North Carolina State University, The Citadel, Horry Georgetown Technical College, and Clemson University.

Sarah Bailey, Harrison Kendall, Anya Dias-Hawkins, and Hana Thibault before competing in the Quiz Bowl competition.

But when the lights came up, the gloves came off, and Duke’s students faced off against their peers in five competitions. Sophomore Anya Dias-Hawkins and junior Sarah Bailey earned third place for their efforts in the Geotechnical competition, where students were tasked with a real-life geotechnical design problem.

Juniors Grace Lee and Leo Lee along with senior Arthur Tsang won first place for their design in the Lightest Bridge competition, where popsicle bridges had to withstand a weight of 200 lbs.

Sophomores Anya Dias-Hawkins, Harrison Kendall and Hana Thibault also took home first place honors in the Freshmore competition, where students were tasked with designing an imaginary city. Lastly, Harrison Kendall won an individual award for his paper and presentation in the Daniel W. Mead Paper competition.

Arthur Tsang, Leo Lee, and Grace Lee standing on their winning Lightest Bridge design.

Duke ASCE is extremely excited to continue their efforts at the Carolinas symposium next year and hopes to send many more competitors. The group plans to compete in larger competitions such as Concrete Canoe next year at UNC Charlotte. With enough preparation, the students hope to advance to the national conference in 2024.

If you are interested in getting involved with Duke ASCE and/or competing in next year’s symposium, please email co-Presidents Sarah Bailey and Harrison Kendall at sarah.a.bailey@duke.edu or harrison.kendall@duke.edu.

Post by Harrison Kendall, civil engineering class of ‘25

Senior Jenny Huang on her Love for Statistics and the Scientific Endeavor

Statistics and computer science double major Jenny Huang (T’23) started Duke as many of us do – vaguely pre-med, undecided on a major – but she knew she had an interest in scientific research. Four years later, with a Quad Fellowship and an acceptance to MIT for her doctoral studies, she reflects on how research shaped her time at Duke, and how she hopes to impact research.

Jenny Huang (T’23)

What is it about statistics? And what is it about research?

With experience in biology research during high school and during her first year at Duke, Huang toyed with the idea of an MD/PhD, but ultimately realized that she might be better off dropping the MD. “I enjoy figuring out how the world works” Huang says, and statistics provided a language to examine the probabilistic and often unintuitive nature of the world around us.

In another life, Huang remarked, she might have been a physics and philosophy double major, because physics offers the most fundamental understanding of how the world works, and philosophy is similar to scientific research: in both, “you pursue the truth through cyclic questioning and logic.” She’s also drawn to engineering, because it’s the process of dissecting things until you can “build them back up from first principles.”

At the International Society for Bayesian Analysis summer conference in Montreal

Huang’s research and the impact of COVID-19

For Huang, research started her first year at Duke, on a Data+ team, led by Professor Charles Nunn, studying the variation of parasite richness across primate species. To map out what types of parasites interacted with what type of monkeys, the team relied on predictors such as body mass, diet, and social activity, but in the process, they came up against an interesting phenomenon.

It appeared that the more studied a primate was, the more interactions it would have with parasites, simply because of the amount of information available on the primate. Due to geographic and experimental constraints, however, a large portion of the primate-parasite network remained understudied. This example of a concept in statistics known as sampling bias was muddling their results. One day, while making an offhand remark about the problem to one of her professors (Professor David Dunson), Huang ended up arranging a serendipitous research match. It turned out that Dunson had a statistical model that could be applied to the problem Nunn and the Data+ team were facing.

The applicability of statistics to a variety of different fields enamored Huang. When COVID-19 hit, it impacted all of us to some degree, but for Huang, it provided the perfect opportunity to apply mathematical models to a rapidly-changing pandemic. For the past two summers, through work with Dunson on a DOMath project, as well as Professor Jason Xu and Professor Rick Durrett, Huang has used mathematical modeling to assess changes in the spread of COVID-19.

On inclusivity in research

As of 2018, just 28% of graduates in mathematics and statistics at the doctoral level identified as women. Huang will eventually be included in this percentage, seeing as she begins her Ph.D. at MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in the fall, working with Professor Tamara Broderick.

“When I was younger, I always thought that successful and smart people in academia were white men,” Huang laughed. But that’s not true, she emphasizes: “it’s just that we don’t have other people in the story.” As one of the few female-presenting people in her research meetings, Huang has often felt pressure to underplay her more, “girly” traits to fit in. But interacting with intelligent, accomplished female-identifying academics in the field (including collaborations with Professor Cynthia Rudin) reaffirms to her that it’s important to be yourself: “there’s a place for everyone in research.”

At the Joint Statistical Meetings Conference in D.C with fellow researcher Gaurav Parikh

Advice for first-years and what the future holds

While she can’t predict where exactly she’ll end up, Huang is interested in taking a proactive role in shaping the impacts of artificial intelligence and machine learning on society. And as the divide between academia and industry is becoming more and more gray, years from now, she sees herself existing somewhere in that space.

Her advice for incoming Duke students and aspiring researchers is threefold. First, Huang emphasizes the importance of mentorship. Having kind and validating mentors throughout her time at Duke made difficult problems in statistics so much more approachable for her, and in research, “we need more of that type of person!”

Second, she says that “when I first approached studying math, my impatience often got in the way of learning.” Slowing down with the material and allowing herself the time to learn things thoroughly helped her improve her academic abilities.

Being around people who have this shared love and a deep commitment for their work is just the human endeavor at its best.

Jenny huang

Lastly, she stresses the importance of collaboration. Sometimes, Huang remarked,“research can feel isolating, when really it is very community-driven.” When faced with a tough problem, there is nothing more rewarding than figuring it out together with the help of peers and professors.  And she is routinely inspired by the people she does research with: “being around people who have this shared love and a deep commitment for their work is just the human endeavor at its best.”

Post by Meghna Datta, Class of 2023

(Editor’s note: This is Jenny’s second appearance on the blog. As a senior at NC School of Science and Math, she wrote a post about biochemist Meta Kuehn.)

Origami Robots: How Technology Moves at the Micro Level

Imagine a robot small enough to fit on a U.S. penny. Or even small enough to rest on Lincoln’s chest. It sounds preposterous enough. Now, imagine a robot small enough to rest on the chest of Lincoln – not the Lincoln whose head decorates the front side of the penny, but the even tinier version of him on the back. 

Before it was changed to a Union Shield, the tail side of pennies contained the Lincoln Memorial, including a miniscule representation of the seated Lincoln statue that rests inside. Barely visible to the naked eye, this miniature Lincoln is on the order of a few hundred micrometers wide. As incredible as it sounds, this is the scale of robots being built by Professor Itai Cohen and his lab at Cornell University. On February 22, Cohen shared several of his lab’s cutting-edge technologies with an audience in Duke’s Schiciano Auditorium. 

Dr. Itai Cohen from Cornell University begins his presentation by demonstrating the scale of the microrobots being developed by his lab.

To begin, Cohen describes the challenge of building robots as consisting of two distinct parts: the brain of the robot, and the brawn. The brain refers to the microchip, and the brawn refers to the “legs,” or actuating limbs of the robot. Between these two, the brain – believe it or not – is the easy part. As Cohen explains, “fifty years of Moore’s Law has solved this problem.” (In 1965, Gordon Moore theorized that roughly every two years, the number of transistors able to fit on microchips will double, suggesting that computational progress will become exponentially more efficient over time.) We now possess the ability to create ridiculously small microcircuits that fit on the footprint of a few micrometers. The brawn, on the other hand, is a major challenge. 

This is where Cohen and his lab come in. Their idea was to use standard fabrication tools used by the semiconductor industry to build the chips, and then build the robot around the chip by folding the robot into the 3D shape they desired. Think origami, but at the microscopic scale. 

Like any good origami artist, the researchers at the Cohen lab recognized that it all starts with the paper. Using the unique tools at the Cornell Nanoscale Facility, the Cohen team created the world’s thinnest paper, including one made out of a single sheet of graphene. To clarify, that’s a single atom thickness.

Next, it came to the folding.  As Cohen describes, there’s really two main options. The first is to shrink down the origami artist to the microscopic level. He concedes that science doesn’t know how to do that quite yet. Alas, the second strategy is to have the paper fold itself. (I will admit that as an uneducated listener, option number two sounds about as absurd as the first one.) Regardless, this turns out to be the more reasonable option.

Countless different iterations of microrobots can be fabricated using the origami folding technique.

The basic process works like this: a seven nanometer thick platinum layer is coated on one side with an inert material. When put in a solution and voltage applied, ions that are dissociated in the solvent will absorb onto the platinum surface. When this happens, a stress is created that bends the device. Reversing the voltage drives away the ions and unbends the device. Applying stiff elements to certain regions restricts the bending to occur only in desired locations. Devices about the thickness of a hair diameter can be created (folded and unfolded) using this method. 

This microscopic origami duck developed by the Cohen Lab graced the covered of Science Robotics in March 2021.

As incredible as this is, there is still one defect: it requires a wire to an external power source that attaches onto the device. To solve this problem, the Cohen lab uses photovoltaics (mini solar panels) that attach directly onto the device itself. When light is shined on the photovoltaic (via sunlight or lasers), it moves the limb. With this advance and some continuous tweaking, the Cohen lab was able to develop the world’s smallest walking robot. 

At just 40 microns by 70 microns by 2 microns thick, the smallest walking microrobot in the world is able to fold itself up and walk off the page.

The Cohen Lab also achieved “BroBot” – a microrobot that “flexes his muscles” when light is shined on the front photovoltaics and truly “looks like he belongs on a beach somewhere.”

The “BroBot,” complete with “chest hair,” was one of the earlier versions of the robot that eventually was refined into the world record-winning microrobot.

The Cohen Lab successfully eliminated the need for any external wire, but there was still more left to be desired. These robots, including “BroBot” and the Guinness World Record-winning microrobot, still required lasers to activate the limbs. In this sense, as Cohen explains, the robots were “still just marionettes” being controlled by “strings” in the form of laser pulses.

To go beyond this, the Cohen Lab began working with a commercial foundry, X-Fab, to create microchips that would act as a brain that could coordinate the limb movements. In this way, the robots would be able to move on their own, without using lasers pointed at specific photovoltaics. Cohen describes this moment as “cutting the strings on the marionette, and bringing Pinocchio to life.”

This is the final key step in the development of Ant Bot: a microrobot that moves all on its own. It uses a hexapod gate, meaning a tripod on each side. All that has to be done is placing the robot in sunlight, and the brain does the rest of the coordination.

“Ant Bot,” one of the most advanced of all microrobots to come out of the Cohen Lab, is able to move autonomously, without the aid of lasers.

The potential for these kinds of microrobots is nearly limitless. As Cohen emphasizes, the application for robots at the microscale is “basically anything you can imagine doing at the macroscale.” Cleaning surfaces, transporting cargo, building components. Perhaps conducting microsurgeries, or exploring new worlds that appear inaccessible. One particularly promising application is a robot that mimics that movement of cilia – the microscopic cellular hair responsible for countless locomotion and sensory functions in the body. A cilia-covered chip could become the basis of new portable diagnostic devices, enabling field testing that would be much easier, cheaper, and more efficient.

The researchers at the Cohen Lab envision a possible future where microscopic robots are used in swarms to restructure blood vessels, or probe large swathes of the human brain in a new form of healthcare based on quantum materials. 

Until now, few would have imagined that the ancient art of origami would predict and enable technology that could transform the future of medicine and accelerate the exploration of the universe.

Post by Kyla Hunter, Class of ’23

Design challenge feels like fun, actually earns credits

It seemed like soccer — football — was everywhere in December. The World Cup is the most watched sporting event in the world, attracting viewership from billions of people every four years.

Yet, despite advances in training, technique, and the ability to have half of the Earth’s population watching a single game at the same time, ‘the beautiful game’ has remained remarkably similar to its original form, which is believed to go back thousands of years.

Inspired by the World Cup and the topic of innovation in sports, one team of Duke undergraduates decided that the game was due for a bit of innovation.

Team Aelevate and their device for turning any bike into a stationary exerciser.

They were students enrolled in the Fall 2022 semester of Product Design one of five student teams tasked with the challenge of creating a “novel smart fitness device.”

Dedicated to the idea of incorporating “smart fitness” into soccer, the team decided to spend the semester building a smart soccer goal post. They retrofitted a goal post with lasers and photoresistors to detect the exact speed and position at which the ball passes through the goal and report the results in a user-friendly computer interface. The motivation behind this device was to provide a tool that helps amateur and professional soccer players hone their scoring skills with precise, real-time data.

Over the course of the semester, the team brainstormed, conceptualized, designed, and built a high-fidelity, working prototype of their product, eventually culminating in an end-of-semester product trade show.

The Product Design course, created just over one year ago by Dr. Rebecca Simmons, is intended to provide another opportunity for students to take a class focused on team-based, open-ended design. The class aims to “expand students’ designing under constraint skills,” explains Simmons, a widely beloved professor of mechanical engineering for undergraduates.

A School of Engineering video about the showcase event

Students work in small groups of 4-5, usually a mix of mechanical and electrical engineers, to conceptualize, design, prototype, build, and test a product over the course of one semester. The only constraints are a budget of $1,000, and a theme that varies from semester to semester. In the past the theme has been “smart kitchen,” “smart transportation,” and, this semester, “smart fitness.” 

The LaserF team and their smart soccer goal.

Undergraduate engineers partner with graduate students in Engineering Management (Managing Product Design, an advanced topics class taught by Dr. Gregory Twiss). While the undergraduate engineers focus on designing and building, the graduate students learn about the management side of developing a product (business, marketing, customer analysis, and more). While previously just open to mechanical engineering students, in Fall 2022 the class expanded to include ECE students and ECE professor Dr. Tyler Bletsch.

Creating novel smart technology is always a daunting task, but it adds a whole new layer of complexity when the device you’re creating has to be kicked, hit, or otherwise struck with heavy objects.

For LaserF, the group developing the smart soccer goal, the class certainly fulfilled the promise of providing a learning experience that was challenging and rigorous. The project encountered numerous obstacles from beginning to end, according to team members Lelia Jennings (ME ‘23) and Jake Mann (ME ‘23). Brainstorming an idea, meeting the budget constraints, coordinating with the graduate team, and working within the rules of the on-campus makerspaces were all constant challenges. One of the most comical moments, according to Lelia, occurred on the very day of the trade show. 

For most of the year, the Fitzpatrick atrium looks like a quiet, ordinary, empty space. A pretty space to study and pass through on your way to class, but otherwise unremarkable. During the end of the semester, however, it transforms into one of the busiest spots on campus. The atrium becomes the site of several poster fairs and project presentations that represent the culmination of a semester’s worth of hard work for numerous classes, clubs, and independent studies. One such event is the Product Design trade show.

After months of work, LaserF finally found themselves in the buzzing atrium, ready for the show. After setting up all their complex parts, the product was ready for the first test throw in the final, real working environment. One of the grad students volunteered for the premiere kick-off.

After a tense countdown, the student kicked the ball… and launched it directly into the crossbar of the goal, knocking it back, and sending every laser out of misalignment. Luckily, as Lelia recalls, the team was all “so sleep deprived, we just started laughing.” With a few minutes to spare before the beginning of the show, they were able to recalibrate their device in time.

This is Autospot – a device for lifting weights safely by yourself.

One more notable theme arose when a new idea was tossed out in the weekly class meeting: what about weatherproofing? Admittedly, the team had not thought about it. Thinking on the fly, one team member jokingly posed solving the problem with “a well-placed piece of tape.” As the weeks went by, weatherproofing still never managed to make it up the list of priorities. Turning to the professor for advice as the tradeshow approached, the suggestion that came back was perhaps using some well-placed pieces of tape after all. “It’s funny how priorities change with time,” said Jake Mann.

In a class of 25 students, LaserF was not the only group to overcome significant challenges to produce a remarkable final product. The team Aelevate created an accessory that turns any bicycle into a stationary bike, providing variable resistance, and adjustable inclines. Revfit created a boxing device integrated with lights and sounds to create a fun boxing workout that evokes the competitive spirit of an arcade game. Gear Guroo created a device that attaches onto bicycles and recommends the optimal bike gear. Lastly, AutoSpot created an automatic spotter device for a bench press. It uses a hydraulic press to lift a barbell away from the chest when failure is detected.

Revfit and their boxing machine. That’s me, second from left

Overall, the tradeshow was a tremendous success. All of the students in the class, many of whom have already taken it twice, resoundingly recommend it to fellow engineering students.

Eva Jacobsthal, a member of the AutoSpot team, appreciates that the class “allows students to have complete ownership over the development process – you are able to demonstrate your creativity and knowledge base while gaining hands-on experience.” Another student notes that the course feels like “an extracurricular that counts for academic credit.”

Simmons said the best part of the class is the students who take it, noting “the curiosity, dedication, perseverance and excitement of the students is really reflected in the innovative and high-quality final designs.” The class, next offered in Fall 2023, comes highly recommended to any graduate or undergraduate engineering students who may be interested in product design.

Lastly, the class serves as a reminder to always take the long way through the Fitzpatrick atrium when the end of the semester rolls around – you never know what exciting trade show or product fair you might step into.

Post by Kyla Hunter

Post by Kyla Hunter, Class of 2023

For Weary Scholars, a Moment to Regroup, Reconnect…and Write

DURHAM, N.C. — English professor Charlotte Sussman doesn’t get much time in her role as department chair to work on her latest book project, an edited collection of essays on migration in and out of Europe.

“At least not during daylight hours,” Sussman said.

But a recent workshop brought a welcome change to that. Sussman was one of 22 faculty who gathered Dec. 13 for an end-of-semester writing retreat hosted by the Duke Faculty Write Program.

Duke faculty and staff gather for an end-of-semester writing retreat.

Most of them know all too well the burnout faculty and students face at the end of the semester. But for a few precious hours, they hit pause on the constant onslaught of emails, meetings, grading and other duties to work alongside fellow writers.

The participants sat elbow-to-elbow around small tables in a sunlit room at the Duke Integrative Medicine Center. Some scribbled on pads of paper; others peered over their laptops.

Each person used the time to focus on a specific writing project. Sussman aimed to tackle an introduction for her 34-essay collection. Others spent the day working on a grant application, a book chapter, a course proposal, a conference presentation.

Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, Ph.D.
Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, Ph.D.

“We have so many negative associations with writing because there’s always something more to do,” said associate professor of the practice Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, who directs the program. “I want to change the way people experience writing.”

Ahern-Dodson encouraged the group to break their projects into small, specific tasks as they worked toward their goals. It might be reading a journal article, drafting an outline, organizing some notes, even just creating or finding a file.

After a brief workshop, she kicked off a 60-minute writing session. “Now we write!” she said.

The retreat is the latest installment in a series that Ahern-Dodson has been leading for over 10 years. In a typical week, most of these scholars wouldn’t find themselves in the same room. There were faculty and administrators from fields as diverse as history, African and African American Studies, law, psychology, classics, biostatistics. New hires sitting alongside senior scholars with decades at Duke.

Peggy Nicholson, J.D., Clinical Professor of Law, writing alongside colleagues from across campus

“I really like the diversity of the group,” said Carolyn Lee, Professor of the Practice of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. “It’s a supportive environment without any judgement. They all have the same goal: they want to get some writing done.”

Sussman said such Faculty Write program get-togethers have been “indispensable” to bringing some of her writing projects over the finish line.

Participants say the program not only fosters productivity, but also a sense of connection and belonging. Take Cecilia Márquez, assistant professor in the Duke History Department. She joined the Duke faculty in 2019, but within months the world went into COVID-19 lockdown.

“This was my way to meet colleagues,” said Márquez, who has since started a writing group for Latinx scholars as an offshoot.

The writing retreats are free for participants, thanks to funding from the Office of the Dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the Thompson Writing Program. Participants enjoy lunch, coaching and community in what’s normally a solitary activity.

“I appreciate the culture of collaboration,” said David Landes, who came to Duke this year as Assistant Professor of the Practice in Duke’s Thompson Writing Program. “In the humanities our work is intensely individualized.”

Assistant Professor of Biostatistics & Bioinformatics Hwanhee Hong (left) and Adam Rosenblatt, Associate Professor of the Practice in International Comparative Studies (right)

Retreats are one of many forms of support offered by the Faculty Write program: there are also writing groups and workshops on topics such as balancing teaching and scholarship or managing large research projects.

“One of the distinguishing features of Faculty Write is the community that extends beyond one event,” Ahern-Dodson said. “Many retreats are reunions.”

After two hours of writing, Ahern-Dodson prompted the group to take a break. Some got up to stretch or grab a snack; others stepped outside to chat or stroll through the center’s labyrinth at the edge of Duke Forest.

It’s more than just dedicated writing time, Ahern-Dodson said. It’s also “learning how to work with the time they have.”

The retreats offer tips from behavioral psychology, writing studies, and other disciplines on time management, motivation, working with reader feedback, and other topics.

As they wrap up the last writing session of the day, Ahern-Dodson talks about how to keep momentum.

“Slow-downs and writing block are normal,” Ahern-Dodson said. Maybe how you wrote before isn’t working anymore, or you’re in a rut. Perhaps you’re not sure how to move forward, or maybe writing simply feels like a slog.

“There are some things you could try to get unstuck,” Ahern-Dodson said. Consider changing up your routine: when and where you write, or how long each writing session lasts.

“Protect your writing time as you would any other meeting,” Ahern-Dodson said.

Sharing weekly goals and accomplishments with other people can help too, she added.

“Celebrate each win.”

Ultimately, Ahern-Dodson says, the focus is not on productivity but on meaning, progress and satisfaction over time.

“It’s all about building a sustainable writing practice,” she said.

Ahern-Dodson leads an end-of-semester writing retreat for Duke scholars.

Coming soon: On Friday, Jan. 27 from 12-1 p.m., join Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement Abbas Benmamoun for a conversation about how writing works for him as a scholar and administrator. In person in Rubenstein Library 249 (Carpenter Fletcher Room)

Get Involved: Faculty and staff are invited to sign up for writing groups for spring 2023 here.

Learn more about sustainable writing practices: “The Productivity Trap: Why We Need a New Model of Faculty Writing Support,” Jennifer Ahern-Dodson and Monique Dufour. Change, January/February 2023.

Robin Smith
By Robin Smith

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