A 1983 New Yorker article by Whitney Balliet argued that “Women don’t have the grace and poise to play jazz.” While this comment wasn’t uncommon for the time, it certainly wasn’t universally accepted. In fact, this comment is what feminist writer and producer, Rosetta Reitz, sought to disprove through her decades-long efforts to promote underrepresented records.
This past Tuesday Feb. 6, the “Rosetta Reitz’s Musical Archive of Care” Bass Connections team hosted a discussion pertaining to the origins, findings, and thought process of this archive. Leading this discussion were researchers Anthony Kelley, Duke Professor, and Tift Merritt, Grammy-nominated musician. In this, the pair explored the key theme of artistic empathy utilized through the archival process. Archival artistic empathy describes the act of not making yourself the center of your findings but allowing them to enlarge your compassion. This theme was pertinent not only for Merritt’s research journey but also for that of Reitz.
Rosetta Rietz was a feminist, historian, and producer who recognized the absence of female voices within the jazz industry and sought to find the root cause. Through her efforts she quickly recognized that the women were there, they were simply unheard. Rosetta, determined to change this fact, began to collect information about the music of these women as a means of building a platform for them in Rosetta Records. This recording company was created for the sole purpose of promoting, rediscovering, and establishing the voices of women in the jazz industry, a rarity for the time period. With exactly 97 women under her records, Reitz was unwavering in her attempts to get their music picked up by major radio stations. Rosetta Records would go on to produce eighteen albums dedicated to many talented unknown singers and even some as big as Billie Holiday.
From L to R: Tift Merritt, Annie Koppes and Anthony Kelley (Picture taken by Yasaman Baghban)
Rosetta was truly an influential creative whose influence extended beyond that of music. She was the owner of a bookstore in Greenwich Village. She went on to write one of the first books on menopause and on the absence of women in jazz. She was an active member in her community seeking to recognize and correct injustices. Reitz was truly someone whose compassion and artistic empathy shone through. This is not to say that attempts at not centering herself were always successful. Reitz often faced backlash from the media for appearing disingenuous due to ethical and legal concerns surrounding her work. These concerns largely apply to works such as her Jailhouse Blues record which utilized the voices and struggles of women in a Mississippi prison, released by Mississippi congress, to create a record. Many questioned if these women consented to this, how they felt to find this, and the overall ethicality in creating this.
Bass Connections team members Lindsay Frankfort and Trisha Santanam.
The legacy of Rosetta Reitz is one full of great passion and love for the art that is jazz and women’s place within it. The Bass Connections research team has managed to bring it to life by employing their own artistic empathy. They have created a full picture of the complexities, devotion and love Rosetta had for life’s work further cementing the fact that women indeed have a rightful place within the jazz industry.
From his time in the Indian military to his journey to the NYU Stern School of Business to making his mark in India through his social work, Abraham George seems to be, and indeed is, a jack of all trades. He is the founder and principal of Shanti Bhavan, a school for students born into India’s lowest socioeconomic class.
“The last 29 years since I founded Shanti Bhavan, it has been the most rewarding and satisfying part of my life – I’ve done a lot of stuff, but nothing compares to what I’ve done with this,” George said. “The satisfaction comes from the fact that the children we have worked with are able to acquire jobs in Amazon and study in schools like Duke – one of them is here!” His words were infused with unmistakable passion. The crowd cheered the former student. We experienced a collective shiver down our spines; the fruit of George’s work was right in front of us – undeniable and beautiful.
The story of his life’s work was made into a Netflix documentary called “Daughters of Destiny.” Created and produced by Vanessa Roh, it featured the lives of students at the boarding school George founded. During his talk, we saw an ABC news segment called “Shanti Bhavan: haven of peace”.
After hearing the inspirations and motivations behind the creation of this boarding school, the designation of it being a ‘haven of peace’ is irrefutable.
George didn’t start in philanthropy. As an 18-year-old he found himself in the Indian military; he was posted near Tibet (in the Salem pass) where his job was to establish gun positions in case China invaded the country, India. In subzero temperatures, he lived through it for eleven months. During his time there, he read a quote ‘there is nothing right about war, it is about who is left’.
And so, George began asking himself questions: Why was he ready to take people’s lives? What was he truly doing with his life? And what would life be like in service of others?
He embarked on a newfound journey: to create a safe space where religion, caste or class does not matter. Today, Shanti Bhavan serves as a school for all – where students are not called ‘students’ but rather ‘children’.
A crucial question still stands: does the success of Shanti Bhavan prove the effectiveness of all charitable projects? When asked, George was quick to point out the fact that without money, there is no success. Consequently, his first goal was to earn, and second was to fund. Perhaps then all charitable causes could be effective if one has funding? It’s difficult to have a concrete answer, but it goes without saying that if it is true, George’s work serves as evidence.
George moved on from the life of a solider, to pursue education in the hopes of reaching a place where he could benefit others. “Think of a world only a heart can build and never ask why” – a memorable quote from a true benevolent force, akin to angelic presence.
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.
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
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.
We’re all familiar with the quintessential elementary school bake sale: hand-drawn posters, homemade treats, and shockingly high price tags, all in the name of charity. However, for Duke sophomore Liam Frumkin, his Few Quad bake sale resulted in a potential Shark Tank Product.
Liam Frumkin, Trinity ’26
Frumkin is a 20 year old economics major who recently got back from a gap year developing AHAV, a snack company specializing in healthy treats. AHAV, which means “to love” in Hebrew, has a mission statement “To Improve Lives Through Simple Snacks and Simple Ingredients!” Through selling healthy cookie dough bites and donating a portion of the proceeds to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and No Kid Hungry, Frumkin has been able to turn his bake sale into an amazing entrepreneurial venture.
Frumkin’s story started seven years ago when he began to develop an eating disorder. Throughout his freshman and sophomore years of high school, Frumkin remembers losing unhealthy amounts of weight through constant exercise and eating very little. At grocery stores, he was overwhelmed by ingredient lists and nutritional contents of the snacks lining the aisles.
His eating disorder came to its peak during his junior year, when he was hospitalized and began professional treatment for his eating disorder. Throughout treatment, Frumkin began to cook more in order to create snacks that both satisfied his cravings, and felt comfortable and safe to eat. At first, he says, Frumkin was doing this “just for [him]self”.
When Frumkin arrived at Duke in August of 2021, he continued cooking in his dorm kitchens. Intrigued, his dorm-mates and friends would stop by to inquire and try Frumkin’s creations. Frumkin said he received stellar feedback about the nutritional value and deliciousness of his treats (I can confirm, having tried AHAV chocolate chip cookie dough bites, that they are, in fact, delicious). Because of his obsession with Shark Tank (I’m sure we can all relate), Frumkin began looking into how to capitalize on his passion of creating nutritional snacks.
Liam and his very first batch of cookie dough bites.
And so, Frumkin began to hold bake sales in front of Few Quad on West Campus, selling ziploc bags of his homemade treats. Within a couple of months, he had made thousands of dollars, far surpassing my elementary school bake sales. When the Duke Administration caught wind of Frumkin’s bake sales, they informed him that the sale of foods without a license were illegal and encouraged him to find a professional kitchen.
Frumkin agreed with Duke and began searching for a professional kitchen, eventually finding a Duke alumnus who had started their own food business through an accelerator program called Union Kitchen. Union Kitchen accepts eight people a year and in exchange for 10% equity, allows access to kitchens, resources, and connections.
Frumkin applied to the program with zero expectations, not even telling his parents about his plans. However, after receiving the good news, his parents were nothing but supportive.
Liam and his parents in the AHAV kitchen.
With nothing but a few suitcases and ziploc bags of cookie dough bites, Frumkin began his semester off, moved to Washington D.C., and started work on AHAV.
Pretty soon, a gap semester turned into a gap year, and Frumkin launched AHAV on January 1, 2023. At the time of the launch, Frumkin had already partnered with local retail stores to sell AHAV products in-store. When I talked with Frumkin, he expressed immense appreciation for Union Kitchen’s connections and their help getting his company off the ground.
Liam and the first bag of AHAV ever produced.
Frumkin turned to TikTok and Instagram to share his own journey with his eating disorder and to market AHAV, receiving resounding support from his followers, who resonated with both Frumkin’s story and AHAV’s mission. AHAV has more than 120,000 followers across various social media platforms and a team of six full-time employees based out of Washington D.C.
The AHAV logo
From applying for Shark Tank, to grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, AHAV clearly has a bright future. AHAV has also donated over 120,000 meals to kids in need and helped over 6,000 kids get treatment for their eating disorders. Frumkin’s philanthropy has really lived up to AHAV’s meaning of “to love” and the heart-based logo.
During his time-off, Frumkin found himself struggling with loneliness, having no consistent interactions with students his own age. Since he’s been back, Frumkin says he’s still searching for that perfect work-life-school balance. Despite this, he still says it is hands-down the smartest decision he’s ever made, which he largely credits to Duke’s support. During his time-off, Frumkin said Time Away From Duke was extremely supportive and accommodating. Since being back on campus, he’s reached out to the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Office and connected with fellow Duke students who are eager to help with video editing, marketing, etc. Frumkin also found support from Duke’s extensive alumni network, which he met through the pre-orientation group Project Edge, as well as the Duke in Silicon Valley program.
Frumkin says that as a freshman, he still continued to struggle with disordered eating. He frequently met with a nutritionist from Duke Student Health, who he says was very helpful, specifically around his obsession with nutrients and ingredients. Frumkin stressed that students with eating disorders can fight their battles together. He says one of the most rewarding parts of starting AHAV has been sharing his journey and helping other people realize that they’re not alone.
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 isChief 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!
My mom likes to introduce me by telling a childhood story. She’s told the same one for years, but it never fails to crack her up. (Watch out—she will genuinely cry from laughter!) It goes like this:
I was in second grade, and I was taking the ESL test. It’s straightforward—they show you flashcards, and you name them in English. I breezed through tree and house; but when I saw a bird, I fell silent.
“Don’t you know what a bird is?” my mom asked.
Cheeks red, I responded, “I knew it was a bird, I just wasn’t sure what species.”
At this point we’re both chortling, and she tells me that aiyah, Michelle, you were always so serious as a child.
That’s me on the left looking resolute at preschool graduation.
Which is a fair analysis—I was shy. I overthought. And I was a perfectionist. If I didn’t have the best answer or the most interesting remark, I was often too scared to speak at all.
But I love formulating answers, and I love talking to people. So going into high school, I told myself this mindset would change. I would shoot every shot and carpe every diem, fear be darned.
Like all new things, it was difficult. The learning curve was so steep it may as well have had a vertical asymptote. (If you liked that math joke, ask me about my calculus-themed promposal!)
Fortunately, life has a way of placing us in situations that help us grow. Sophomore year, I volunteered to teach STEM classes to middle schoolers. The chaos of pre-teens with pent-up quarantine energy is unparalleled—needless to say, I was terrified. But I found solace in the familiarity of science—as I rambled about CRISPR-Cas9 and coral ecology, I became more comfortable speaking to others.
I learned that Shrek is an icon, Minecraft is a competitive sport, and I should never click links in the Zoom chat—lest I be lured into a Rickroll. I also discovered that it didn’t matter whether my presentation was perfect or even if I acted a little weird.
Zooming with my middle school STEM buddies—note the Elmo background.
What mattered was watching students who’d never heard of engineering before prototyping egg parachutes and Rube Goldberg machines. What mattered was seeing Vicky return for a second year, evolving from student to TA. What mattered was watching a kid’s face light up with the joy of learning something new.
That’s what I hope to accomplish with the Duke Research Blog. As a freshman, I know the endless possibilities on campus—while a blessing—can be intimidating. STEM and academia have seemingly high barriers to entry. But I’ve also seen that discovering something new can be the best feeling in the world. I hope to play a small part in helping you, the reader, get there.
And as a baby Dukie, I hope to connect with the inspiring community here. Whether through a Research Blog interview or a quick conversation on the crowded C1, I am so excited to meet y’all.
So, if you see me around campus, come say hello! And if you’re a people-person-but-introverted like me and could use a conversation starter, here are a couple:
Tell me what songs you’re jamming to! I’m currently looping Gracie Abrams and Wallows. Debussy and Tchaikovsky are also regulars—String Quartet No. 1 goes so hard.
Talk about football! As a lifelong Cincinnatian, Joe Burrow is our king.
Share whatever you’re working on! Whether it be uber-complicated math (shoutout to Nikhil) or the perfect matcha latte (shoutout to Krishna), I’d love to know what you’re experimenting with.
Until then, remember to stay hydrated and keep discovering new things. ☺️
As part of this year’s Energy Week at Duke, graduate and undergraduates were able to participate in a competitive “situation room” style event in which participants were split into five teams and given seventy-five minutes to create a plan for expanding EV (electric vehicle) access in Durham.
For just over an hour in a Fuqua School of Business classroom, my fellow participants and I mulled over the complexities of an issue facing municipalities across the country and produced a variety of solutions, representative of the range of specialties within each group. One more CS-minded group proposed an app to both help residents locate charging stations and help the city collect data on the use of new EV infrastructure, while another group explored the technological and price saving perks of utility pole-mounted charging stations.
The resulting ideas were reviewed by a panel of judges who covered multiple areas of EV expertise: Jennifer Weiss, Senior Advisor for Climate Change Policy at the North Carolina Department of Transportation; Matt Abele, Director of Marketing and Communications at North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association; Sean Ackley, E-Mobility Segment Lead at Hitachi Americas, Ltd.; and Evian Patterson, Assistant Transportation Director in the Durham Department of Transportation.
The goal of Duke’s EnergyWeek is to “promote collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and professional networking” for students interested in the energy sector. The situation room event was not strictly research oriented – our team rooms had windows and we were given free supper and lemonade – but it promoted the fundamentals of research: idea generation, collaboration, and outside-of-the-box thinking.
The victors of the 2023 EnergyWeek Situation Room (photo: Michael Wood III)
The teams were tasked with crafting a strategy that combined technical, business, marketing, and policy considerations to increase EV penetration in Durham. The teams operated under a hypothetical $10 million budget and strategies were to align with the Justice40 initiative, the federal plan to ensure that forty percent of the benefits of new clean transit jobs flow to “disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”
Participants were encouraged to consider “potential barriers to EV adoption, the existing distribution of EV charging stations, and opportunities for community and business involvement” and to be creative.
My team was comprised of students from a range of scholarly backgrounds, from a freshman beginning a mechanical engineering track to a grad student at the Nicholas School with prior work and research in school bus electrification policy. For our plan, we spent little time discussing electric cars and instead focused on expanding access to electric micro-mobility and electrified public transportation.
We had many reasons for doing so. Many Durham residents don’t own cars, so the likelihood of increasing the adoption of electric cars in a timely and affordable manner seems low. Countries around the world are instead focusing on expanding e-bike access, citing, in addition to climate and affordability concerns, the desire to move away from the safety issues and traffic burden of car-centric urban design.
We saw Durham, which is expected to double in population in just twenty-five years, as a city perfectly positioned to develop around micro-mobility and robust public transportation before it’s too late and set an example for growing urban centers across the country. We used our $10 million to add bike lanes, fund electric buses, and subsidize electric bikes across income levels.
Our team placed second (no big deal!) and walked away with a full stomach and a rekindled spark to break the Duke bubble and get involved in the exciting development of the Bull City.
As a senior at Duke University in 2010, Dr. Quinn Wang was simply Quinn, an undergraduate English major on the pre-med track, wondering how to combine her love for medicine with her love for English. This is how her senior thesis was conceived – Through the Lens of Medicine: Landscapes of Violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), All the Pretty Horses (1992), and No Country for Old Men (2005) – which ended up winning the English department’s award for “Most Original Honors Thesis.”
Dr. Quinn Wang
Fast forward 12 years, and Wang can now call herself a double Dukie, having completed medical school here. She went on to complete ophthalmology residency at UCSF and this past Saturday, November 5, came back to her alma mater as part of the Duke Medical Ethics Journal’s Medicine, Humanities, and Business celebration to talk to an eager audience at Schiciano Auditorium about her path from Duke until now.
She began her story during the infamous year of 2020, when she was forced to stop seeing patients at her private practice in California’s Bay Area due to COVID-19. Restless and anxious about how her patients were doing, she tried to keep up with them as best she could, but of course there were limitations. And then, a few months in, one of her patients went blind.
This tragic moment sparked a frustrating realization by Wang that in the tech capital of the world – San Francisco – there was still no good way to test people’s eyesight from home to prevent what should have been preventable. She decided to put together something herself, guided by the one question she thought was most important to answer until COVID-19 abated and people could come into clinics again – “how do we make sure people don’t go blind?”
Wang took common visual eye-testing tools used in clinics, and with some simple Photoshop editing and a little bit of code, turned them into a series of easy multiple-choice questions that could be answered from home. This simple but powerful transformation turned into Quadrant Eye, a start-up she co-founded with software engineer Kristine Hara.
A common visual tool used to test eyesight is the Snellen chart
The Quadrant Eye journey has taken her from running a private practice as an ophthalmologist to taking the plunge into business by applying to and getting selected for Y Combinator, which calls itself a “graduate school for startups”. YC invests $500,000 into a selection of early-stage startups twice a year. Then, for three intense months, they provide support to get startups off the ground and in good shape to present to investors for funding. At YC, Hara worked on turning Quadrant Eye into an app, and Wang renewed hundreds of prescriptions.
Ultimately, though, the most significant place Quadrant Eye has led Wang to is a journey of self-mastery that applies to any human endeavor, from building a startup to doing research to just getting up every morning. As she describes, startup life entails always learning new things and always messing up – which, for someone who professes that “I don’t like to do things I’m not good at” – can be challenging. She candidly admitted that she, like everyone, has bad days, when sometimes all she can do is throw in the towel and end work early. “I have more doubts than I care to admit,” Wang says, but at the end of the day, “we’re all climbing our own mountains”. Pushing through requires “superhuman effort” but it’s worth it.
And as for that English thesis? Wang describes how Quadrant Eye’s very first investor – “let’s call him Charlie” – asked her all the requisite questions investors ask early-stage startups (think Shark Tank). But he also asked her for something non-traditional – all fifty or so pages of her undergraduate honors thesis she had written ten years back. Apparently, he had seen a mention of it on LinkedIn and was intrigued. A few weeks later, Wang received a phone call that he was interested in investing – and he admitted that her thesis had played a part. To him, the uniqueness and quality of her thesis showed that Wang could problem-solve, communicate well, and think creatively, and Wang herself agrees. “My English thesis showed me that I can do hard things,” she said, and if Quadrant Eye is any indication, clearly, she can.