Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke

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Do Snakes Have Tails? and Other Slithery Questions

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Dhruv Rungta, a member of the Wild Ones club, with a ring-necked snake during a herpetology walk with Dr. Nicki Cagle in the Duke Forest.
Upper left: Dr. Nicki Cagle holding a ring-necked snake. Photo by Montana Lee, another Wild Ones member.

On a sunny Friday in September, Dr. Nicki Cagle led a herpetology walk in the Duke Forest with the Wild Ones. The Wild Ones is an undergraduate club focused on increasing appreciation for the natural world through professor-led outings. Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians.

Dr. Cagle is a senior lecturer in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke and the Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Along with teaching courses on environmental education and natural history, she is also the science advisor for a citizen science project focused on reptiles and amphibians, or herpetofauna, in the Duke Forest. Volunteers monitor predetermined sites in the Duke Forest and collect data on the reptiles and amphibians they find.

“We get a sense of abundance, seasonality… and how the landscape is affecting what we’re seeing,” Dr. Cagle says. There is evidence that herp populations in the Duke Forest and elsewhere are decreasing.

Dr. Nicki Cagle flipping over a cover board with members of the Wild Ones. The cover boards are used to monitor reptiles and amphibians for a citizen science project in the Duke Forest.

The project relies on transects, “a sampling design… where you have a sampling spot at various intervals” along a line of a predetermined length. In this case, the sampling spots are “traps” meant to attract reptiles and amphibians without harming them. Each site has a large board lying on the ground. “Different herps are more likely to be found under different objects,” Dr. Cagle explains, so the project uses both wooden and metal cover boards.

But why would snakes and other herps want to hide under cover boards, anyway? Reptiles and amphibians are “cold-blooded” animals, or ectotherms. They can’t regulate their own body temperature, so they have to rely on their environment for thermoregulation. Snakes might sun themselves on a rock on cold days, for instance, or hide under a conveniently placed wooden board to escape the heat.

Salamanders that use the cover boards might be attracted to the moist environment, while “snakes will tend to go under cover boards either to hide — like if they’re about to molt and they’re more vulnerable — to look for prey, or just to maintain the proper temperature,” Dr. Cagle says.

Citizen scientists typically check the boards once a week and not more than twice a week. Volunteers have to avoid checking the traps too often because of a phenomenon called “trap shyness,” where animals might start avoiding the traps because they’ve learned to associate them with pesky humans flipping the boards over and exposing their otherwise cozy resting places. By checking the traps less frequently, scientists can reduce the likelihood of that and minimize disturbance to the animals they’re studying.

The first snake we saw was a worm snake, dark above with a pink stomach.

Dr. Cagle gave the Wild Ones a behind-the-scenes tour of some of the cover boards. Using a special, hooked tool conveniently stashed in a PVC pipe next to the first cover board, we flipped each board over and looked carefully underneath it for slithery movements. We didn’t find any under the first several cover boards.

But then, under a large sheet of metal, we saw a tiny snake squirming around in the leaf litter. There was a collective intake of breath and exclamations of “snake!”

Dr. Cagle captured it and held it carefully in her hands. Snakes, especially snakes as young as this one, can be all too easily crushed. We gathered around to look more closely at the baby snake, a species with the adorable name “worm snake.” It was dark above with a strikingly pink underside. The pink belly is a key field mark of worm snakes. Earth snakes are also found around here and look similar, but they tend to have tan bellies.

After a minute or two, the worm snake made a successful bid for freedom and wriggled back under the board, disappearing from sight almost immediately.

Crossing over a dry “intermittent stream,” which Dr. Cagle describes as “the running-water equivalent of a vernal pool.” A vernal pool is a temporary wetland that is dry for much of the year.

Some of the cover boards revealed other animals as well. We found a caterpillar chrysalis attached to one and several holes — probably made by small mammals — under another.

Whatever made the holes, we can safely assume it wasn’t a snake. According to Dr. Cagle, the term “snakehole” is misleading. Most snakes don’t make their own holes, though some of them do use existing holes made by other animals. One exception is the bull snake, which is known for digging.

We found a young five-lined skink sunning itself on top of one of the metal cover boards. (Thermoregulation!) Juvenile five-lined skinks are colloquially known as blue-tailed skinks, but the name is somewhat misleading — the adults don’t have blue tails at all.

The snakes we were looking for, meanwhile, were often elusive. Some vanished under the leaf litter before we could catch them. Sometimes it was hard to tell whether we were even looking at a snake at all.

“What are you?” Dr. Cagle muttered at one point, crouching down to get a better look at what was either a stick-esque snake or a snake-esque stick. “Are you an animal? Or are you just a wet something?” (Just a wet something, it turned out.)

The Duke Forest is a valuable community resource with a complicated history. “We know that slavery was practiced on at least four properties” in the Duke Forest, Dr. Cagle says, and the forest is located on the traditional hunting grounds of several indigenous peoples. The interpretive signs along the Shepherd Nature Trail, which we walked part of during our herpetology outing, were designed in collaboration with the Occaneechi Band of Saponi. Today, the Duke Forest is used for research, recreation, timber management, and wildlife management and conservation.

Later on, we found at least three young ring-necked snakes (Diadophis punctatus) under different cover boards. One of them was particularly cooperative, so we passed it around the group. (“All snakes can bite,” Dr. Cagle reminded us, but “some have the tendency to bite less,” and this species “has the tendency not to bite.”) Its small, lithe body was surprisingly strong. The little snake wrapped tightly around one of my fingers and seemed content to chill there. A living, breathing, reptilian ring. That was definitely a highlight of my day.

The faint, dark line on this ring-necked snake’s underside (on the bottom of the loop) is the anal vent. Everything below that point (farther from the head) is considered the official tail of a snake.

If you’ve ever wondered if snakes have tails, the answer is yes. The official cut-off point, Dr. Cagle says, is the anal vent. Everything below that is tail. In between flipping over cover boards and admiring young snakes, we learned about other herps. Near the beginning of our walk, someone asked what the difference is between a newt and a salamander.

“A newt is a type of salamander,” Dr. Cagle says, “but newts have an unusual life cycle where they spend part of their life cycle on land… and that is called their eft phase.” As adults, they return to the water to breed.

We learned that copperheads “tend to be fatter-bodied for their length” and that spotted salamanders cross forest roads in large numbers on warm, rainy nights in early spring when they return to wetlands to breed.

Students holding a ring-necked snake. Above: Kelsey Goldwein (left), Gurnoor Majhail (one of the co-presidents of the Wild Ones), and Simran Sokhi (background on right). Below: Emily Courson (left) and Barron Brothers.

Perhaps the most interesting herp fact of the day came near the end of our walk when one of the students asked how you can tell the sex of a snake. Apparently there are two ways. You can measure a snake’s tail (males usually have longer tails), or you can insert a metal probe, blunted at the end, into a snake’s anal vent. Scientists can determine the sex of the snake by how deep the probe goes. It goes farther into the anal vent if the snake is a male. Why is that? Because male snakes have hemipenes — not two penises, exactly, but “an analogous structure that allows the probe to slide between the two and go farther” than it would in a female snake. The more you know…

Looking for snakes on a herpetology outing with Dr. Cagle and the Wild Ones. Photograph by Gurnoor Majhail.

Disclaimer: Handling wild snakes may result in snake bites. It can also be stressful to the snakes. Furthermore, some snakes in this area are venomous, and it’s probably best to familiarize yourself with those before getting close to snakes rather than afterward. Snakes are amazing, but please observe wildlife safely and responsibly.

Bonus snake! I saw this adorable fellow on the Duke Campus and thought it was an earthworm at first. Dr. Cagle thinks it might be a rough earth snake. I did not check to see if it had a tan belly.
Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

What Are Lichens, and Why Does Duke Have 160,000 of Them?

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Saxicolous lichens (lichens that grow on stones) from the Namib Desert, and finger lichen, Dactylina arctica (bottom left insert), common in the Arctic, on display in Dr. Jolanta Miadlikowska’s office. The orange color on some of the lichen comes from metabolites, or secondary chemicals produced by different lichen species. The finger lichen is hollow.

Lichens are everywhere—grayish-green patches on tree bark on the Duke campus, rough orange crusts on desert rocks, even in the Antarctic tundra. They are “pioneer species,” often the first living things to return to barren, desolate places after an extreme disturbance like a lava flow. They can withstand extreme conditions and survive where nearly nothing else can. But what exactly are lichens, and why does Duke have 160,000 of them in little envelopes? I reached out to Dr. Jolanta Miadlikowska and Dr. Scott LaGreca, two lichen researchers at Duke, to learn more.

Dr. Jolanta Miadlikowska looking at lichen specimens under a dissecting microscope. The pale, stringy lichen on the brown bag is whiteworm lichen (Thamnolia vermicularis), used to make “snow tea” in parts of China.

According to Miadlikowska, a senior researcher, lab manager, and lichenologist in the Lutzoni Lab (and one of the Instructors B for the Bio201 Gateway course) at Duke, lichens are “obligate symbiotic associations,” meaning they are composed of two or more organisms that need each other. All lichens represent a symbiotic relationship between a fungus (the “mycobiont”) and either an alga or a cyanobacterium or both (the “photobiont”). They aren’t just cohabiting; they rely on each other for survival. The mycobiont builds the thallus, which gives lichen its structure. The photobiont, on the other hand, isn’t visible—but it is important: it provides “food” for the lichen and can sometimes affect the lichen’s color. The name of a lichen species refers to its fungal partner, whereas the photobiont has its own name.

Lichen viewed through a dissecting microscope. The black speckles visible on some of the orange lichen lobes are a “lichenicolous” fungus that can grow on top of lichen. There are also “endolichenic fungi… very complex fungal communities that live inside lichen,” Miadlikowska says. “We don’t see them, but they are there. And they are very interesting.”

Unlike plants, fungi can’t perform photosynthesis, so they have to find other ways to feed themselves. Many fungi, like mushrooms and bread mold, are saprotrophs, meaning they get nutrients from organic matter in their environment. (The word “saprotroph” comes from Greek and literally means “rotten nourishment.”) But the fungi in lichens, Miadlikowska says, “found another way of getting the sugar—because it’s all about the sugar—by associating with an organism that can do photosynthesis.” More often than not, that organism is a type of green algae, but it can also be a photosynthetic bacterium (cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae). It is still unclear how the mycobiont finds the matching photobiont if both partners are not dispersed together. Maybe the fungal spores (very small fungal reproductive unit) “will just sit and wait” until the right photobiont partner comes along. (How romantic.) Some mycobionts are specialists that “can only associate with a few or a single partner—a ‘species’ of Nostoc [a cyanobacterium; we still don’t know how many species of symbiotic and free-living Nostoc are out there and how to recognize them], for example,” but many are generalists with more flexible preferences. 

Two species of foliose (leaf-like) lichens from the genus Peltigera. In the species on the left (P. canina), the only photobiont is a cyanobacterium from the genus Nostoc, making it an example of bi-membered symbiosis. In the species on the right (P. aphthosa), on the other hand, the primary photobiont is a green alga (which is why the thallus is so green when wet). In this case, Nostoc is a secondary photobiont contained only in the cephalodia—the dark, wart-like structures on the surface. With two photobionts plus the mycobiont, this is an example of tri-membered symbiosis.

Lichens are classified based on their overall thallus shape. They can be foliose (leaf-like), fruticose (shrubby), or crustose (forming a crust on rocks or other surfaces). Lichens that grow on trees are epiphytic, while those that live on rocks are saxicolous; lichens that live on top of mosses are muscicolous, and ground-dwelling lichens are terricolous. Much of Miadlikowska’s research is on a group of cyanolichens (lichens with cyanobacteria partners) from the genus Peltigera. She works on the systematics and evolution of this group using morphology-, anatomy-, and chemistry-based methods and molecular phylogenetic tools. She is also part of a team exploring biodiversity, ecological rules, and biogeographical patterns in cryptic fungal communities associated with lichens and plants (endolichenic and endophytic fungi). She has been involved in multiple ongoing NSF-funded projects and also helping graduate students Ian, Carlos, Shannon, and Diego in their dissertation research. She spent last summer collecting lichens with Carlos and Shannon and collaborators in Alberta, Canada and Alaska. If you walk in the sub basement of the Bio Sciences building where Bio201 and Bio202 labs are located, check out the amazing photos of lichens (taken by Thomas Barlow, former Duke undergraduate) displayed along the walls! Notice Peltigera species, including some new to science, described by the Duke lichen team.

Lichens have value beyond the realm of research, too. “In traditional medicine, lichens have a lot of use,” Miadlikowska says. Aside from medicinal uses, they have also been used to dye fabric and kill wolves. Some are edible. Miadlikowska herself has eaten them several times. She had salad in China that was made with leafy lichens (the taste, she says, came mostly from soy sauce and rice vinegar, but “the texture was coming from the lichen.”). In Quebec, she drank tea made with native plants and lichens, and in Scandinavia, she tried candied Cetraria islandica lichen (she mostly tasted the sugar and a bit of bitterness, but once again, the lichen’s texture was apparent).

In today’s changing world, lichens have another use as well, as “bioindicators to monitor the quality of the air.” Most lichens can’t tolerate air pollution, which is why “in big cities… when you look at the trees, there are almost no lichens. The bark is just naked.” Lichen-covered trees, then, can be a very good sign, though the type of lichen matters, too. “The most sensitive lichens are the shrubby ones… like Usnea,” Miadlikowska says. Some lichens, on the other hand, “are able to survive in anthropogenic places, and they just take over.” Even on “artificial substrates like concrete, you often see lichens.” Along with being very sensitive to poor air quality, lichens also accumulate pollutants, which makes them useful for monitoring deposition of metals and radioactive materials in the environment.

Dr. Scott LaGreca with some of the 160,000 lichen specimens in Duke’s herbarium.

LaGreca, like Miadlikoska, is a lichenologist. His research primarily concerns systematics, evolution and chemistry of the genus Ramalina. He’s particularly interested in “species-level relationships.” While he specializes in lichens now, LaGreca was a botany major in college. He’d always been interested in plants, in part because they’re so different from animals—a whole different “way of being,” as he puts it. He used to take himself on botany walks in high school, and he never lost his passion for learning the names of different species. “Everything has a name,” he says. “Everything out there has a name.” Those names aren’t always well-known. “Some people are plant-blind, as they call it…. They don’t know maples from oaks.” In college he also became interested in other organisms traditionally studied by botanists—like fungi. When he took a class on fungi, he became intrigued by lichens he saw on field trips. His professor was more interested in mushrooms, but LaGreca wanted to learn more, so he specialized in lichens during grad school at Duke, and now lichens are central to his job. He researches them, offers help with identification to other scientists, and is the collections manager for the lichens in the W.L. and C.F. Culberson Lichen Herbarium—all 160,000 of them.

The Duke Herbarium was founded in 1921 by Dr. Hugo Blomquist. It contains more than 825,000 specimens of vascular and nonvascular plants, algae, fungi, and, of course, lichens. Some of those specimens are “type” specimens, meaning they represent species new to science. A type specimen essentially becomes the prototype for its species and “the ultimate arbiter of whether something is species X or not.” But how are lichens identified, anyway?

Lichenologists can consider morphology, habitat, and other traits, but thanks to Dr. Chicita Culberson, who was a chemist and adjunct professor at Duke before her retirement, they have another crucial tool available as well. Culbertson created a game-changing technique to identify lichens using their chemicals, or metabolites, which are often species-specific and thus diagnostic for identification purposes. That technique, still used over fifty years later, is a form of thin-layer chromatography. The process, as LaGreca explains, involves putting extracts from lichen specimens—both the specimens you’re trying to identify and “controls,” or known samples of probable species matches—on silica-backed glass plates. The plates are then immersed in solvents, and the chemicals in the lichens travel up the paper. After the plates have dried, you can look at them under UV light to see if any spots are fluorescing. Then you spray the plates with acid and “bake it for a couple hours.” By the end of the process, the spots of lichen chemicals should be visible even without UV light. If a lichen sample has traveled the same distance up the paper as the control specimen, and if it has a similar color, it’s a match. If not, you can repeat the process with other possible matches until you establish your specimen’s chemistry and, from there, its identity. Culberson’s method helped standardize lichen identification. Her husband also worked with lichens and was a director of the Duke Gardens.

Thin-layer chromatography plates in Dr. LaGreca’s office. The technique, created by Dr. Chicita Culberson, helps scientists identify lichens by comparing their chemical composition to samples of known identity. Each plate was spotted with extracts from different lichen specimens, and then each was immersed in a different solvent, after which the chemicals in the extracts travel up the plate . Each lichen chemical travels a characteristic distance (called the “Rf value”) in each solvent. Here, the sample in column 1 on the rightmost panel matches the control sample in column 2 in terms of distance traveled up the page, indicating that they’re the same species. The sample in column 4, on the other hand, didn’t travel as far as the one in column 5 and has a different color. Therefore, those chemicals (and species) do not match.

LaGreca shows me a workroom devoted to organisms that are cryptogamic, a word meaning “hidden gametes, or hidden sex.” It’s a catch-all term for non-flowering organisms that “zoologists didn’t want to study,” like non-flowering plants, algae, and fungi. It’s here that new lichen samples are processed. The walls of the workroom are adorned with brightly colored lichen posters, plus an ominous sign warning that “Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free puppy.” Tucked away on a shelf, hiding between binders of official-looking documents, is a thin science fiction novel called “Trouble with Lichen” by John Wyndham.

The Culberson Lichen Herbarium itself is a large room lined with rows of cabinets filled with stacks upon stacks of folders and boxes of meticulously organized lichen samples. A few shelves are devoted to lichen-themed books with titles like Lichens De France and Natural History of the Danish Lichens.

Each lichen specimen is stored in an archival (acid-free) paper packet, with a label that says who collected it, where, and on what date. (“They’re very forgiving,” says LaGreca. “You can put them in a paper bag in the field, and then prepare the specimen and its label years later.”) Each voucher is “a record of a particular species growing in a particular place at a particular time.” Information about each specimen is also uploaded to an online database, which makes Duke’s collection widely accessible. Sometimes, scientists from other institutions find themselves in need of physical specimens. They’re in luck, because Duke’s lichen collection is “like a library.” The herbarium fields loan requests and trades samples with herbaria at museums and universities across the globe. (“It’s kind of like exchanging Christmas presents,” says LaGreca. “The herbarium community is a very generous community.”)

Duke’s lichen collection functions like a library in some ways, loaning specimens to other scientists and trading specimens with institutions around the world.

Meticulous records of species, whether in databases of lichens or birds or “pickled fish,” are invaluable. They’re useful for investigating trends over time, like tracking the spread of invasive species or changes in species’ geographic distributions due to climate change. For example, some lichen species that were historically recorded on high peaks in North Carolina and elsewhere are “no longer there” thanks to global warming—mountain summits aren’t as cold as they used to be. Similarly, Henry David Thoreau collected flowering plants at Walden Pond more than 150 years ago, and his samples are still providing valuable information. By comparing them to present-day plants in the same location, scientists can see that flowering times have shifted earlier due to global warming. So why does Duke have tens of thousands of dried lichen samples? “It comes down to the reproducibility of science,” LaGreca says. “A big part of the scientific method is being able to reproduce another researcher’s results by following their methodology. By depositing voucher specimens generated from research projects in herbaria like ours, future workers can verify the results” of such research projects. For example, scientists at other institutions will sometimes borrow Duke’s herbarium specimens to verify that “the species identification is what the label says it is.” Online databases and physical species collections like the herbarium at Duke aren’t just useful for scientists today. They’re preserving data that will still be valuable hundreds of years from now.

Vernal, Ephemeral, Spring Beauty by Any Other Name

Nicki Cagle, Ph.D., with perfoliate bellwort, an ephemeral forest plant also known as wild oats (Uvularia perfoliata).

“Ephemeral” is one of my favorite words. It conjures up images of vernal pools and fireflies and flowers in spring. It comes from ephēmeros, a Greek word meaning “lasting a day.” English initially used it in a scientific sense, to refer to fevers and then in reference to short-lived organisms like flowers or insects. Today “ephemeral” is most often used to describe anything fleeting or short-lived.

The term “spring ephemeral,” for instance, refers to flowers that are visible for only a short time each spring before they disappear.

Nicki Cagle, Ph.D, a senior lecturer in the Nicholas School of the Environment, led a spring ephemeral workshop in the Korstian Division of Duke Forest on a Friday afternoon in late March. The workshop was hosted by DSER, the Duke student chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration. We focused on identifying herbaceous plant species and families, particularly spring ephemerals.

“Spring ephemerals are perennials that emerge early in the spring and then grow, reproduce, and disappear from the surface of the forest floor in just a few short weeks,” Cagle explains. We also found several species that aren’t technically ephemerals but still bloom in early spring — before the tree canopy emerges and plunges the floor into shade.

Oxalis violacea, a species of wood sorrel.

The first plant Cagle points out is Oxalis violacea, a type of wood sorrel. “This particular species will have purple flowers,” she says. The genus name, Oxalis, refers to the plant’s oxalic acid content. “You can nibble on it,” but “you don’t want to nibble on it too much.” Oxalic acid, which is also found in common foods like spinach, gives the leaves a pleasant, lemony taste, but it can cause problems if eaten in excess.

Common bluet (Houstonia caerulea).

When we come across a patch of lovely, pale violet flowers with yellow centers, Cagle challenges the workshop participants to determine which family it belongs to. She offers two options: Rubiaceae, a large family that often has either opposite or whorled leaves and four to five petals and which includes familiar plants like coffee, or Violaceae, a very small plant family whose members “tend to have everything in fives” (like petals, stamens, and sepals) and often have basal leaves. Answer: Rubiaceae. This particular species is Houstonia caerulea, the common bluet. Its yellow centers help distinguish it from related species like the summer bluet, tiny bluet, and purple bluet. If anything, Cagle says, the plant’s presence is “an indicator of disturbance,” but it’s still good to have around.

Here’s the little brown jug (Hexastylis arifolia).

Next we come across two species in the Hexastylis genus. They are sometimes called wild ginger, but the name is misleading. Hexastylis species are not related to the ginger you buy in the store, which is in a completely different family. Hexastylis is, however, in the same family as the Asarum genus, which Cagle thinks of as “proper” wild ginger. Asarum and Hexastylis have traditionally been used as food and medicine, but they also contain toxins. According to Cagle, they belong to “one of the few plant families that have fossilized remains in the United States,” even dating back to the late Cretaceous Period.

The two species we see are Hexastylis arifolia, the little brown jug, and Hexastylis minor which looks similar but “tends to have a much more rounded form.” Like many spring ephemerals, Hexastylis is often dispersed by ants. The seeds have elaiosomes, fatty deposits that ants find attractive.

“We have a lot of different violets of varying origins” in this area. According to Cagle, this one is likely to be a common blue violet, Viola sororia.

There’s a patch of violets near the Hexastylis plants. “We have a lot of different violets… of varying origins” around here, Cagle says. Many of the native species have both a purple form and a variety that’s white with purple striping. Other species in the violet family come in different colors altogether, and Cagle says many of those are of European origin.

The Johnny-jump-up pansy, for instance, can have “funkier colors,” like yellow or pinkish purple and is native to Europe and Asia. Violets can be hard to identify. Some species are distinguished mainly by characteristics like the lobes (projections in leaves with gaps between them) or the hairiness of the leaves. The bird’s foot violet and wood violet, for example, “tend to have really deep lobes.”

Cagle says the violet we’re looking at is likely the common blue violet, characterized by smooth leaves and petals, purple or purple-and-white flowers, and rounded or slightly arrow-shaped leaves.

The Cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor) reproduces later in the year. The purple on the bottom of the leaves, and sometimes on the top as well (see right), helps protect the plant from sunlight and herbivores.

The orchid family, Orchidaceae, is one of the largest families of flowering plants in the world. Many of its members are tropical, including the Vanilla genus, but “we do have a number of native orchids” here as well, including yellow and pink lady’s slipper orchids, putty-root, and the cranefly orchid.

The cranefly orchid, Tipularia discolor, isn’t yet in bloom, but we come across the leaves several times on our walk. According to Cagle, Tipularia discolor “isn’t actually a spring ephemeral” because it reproduces later in the year. However, “it’s ephemeral in its own way,” the leaves disappear by the time it flowers. Cagle says the plant’s scientific name can remind you what to look for: “‘Tip-’ because you’re going to tip this leaf over” to look at the underside and “discolor” because the leaves are a striking purple underneath. Some of the ones we see are purple on top as well. Cagle explains that the purple coloration serves as sunscreen and protection from critters that eat plants.

The plant gets its common name (and its scientific genus name, interestingly) from its delicate flowers, which are supposed to resemble craneflies. When the plant blooms, “the flowers are so delicate and so subtle that most of the time you miss them.” Pollinators like Noctuid moths, on the other hand, find the flowers easily and often. Cranefly orchids even have “specialized seed structures” that “get fused onto insects [such as the moths]… and carried off.”

Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides or Anemonella thalictroides).
Cagle with giant chickweed (Stellaria pubera).

The rue anemone, unlike the cranefly orchid, is a true spring ephemeral. It belongs to a more “primitive” family and has lots of petals in a spiral arrangement. The species is also known as windflower “because they flutter and dance as the breeze comes through.” Cagle mentions that the plant is “usually pollinated by flies and little bees” and serves as an important food source for insects in early spring. But “how do these even exist” in a forest with so many plant-eating deer? Many spring ephemerals, Cagle explains, have “some really potent toxins” that protect them from large herbivores.

We stop briefly to examine perfoliate bellwort, also known as wild oats (Uvularia perfoliata), and giant (or star) chickweed. Chickweed is in the pink family, named not for the color but because “the petals… [look] as if they’re cut by ‘pinking shears,’” which have saw-toothed blades that leave notches in fabric.

Trout lily (Erythronium umbilicatum). According to Cagle, “No spring ephemeral walk is actually complete without finding some trout lilies.”

Near the end of our walk, we find several trout lilies. That’s fortunate. “No spring ephemeral walk is actually complete without finding some trout lilies,” Cagle says.

Unsurprisingly, trout lilies belong to the lily family. “Their flower structure,” Cagle says, “is very symmetrical” with three petals and three sepals. In trout lilies, the sepals resemble petals, too. This particular species is Erythronium umbilicatum. The species name, umbilicatum, refers to its “really long peduncle,” or flower stalk, which “allows the seed to actually touch the ground.” The seed is dimpled, Cagle says, “like a little belly button.” The name “trout lily,” meanwhile, refers to the mottled pattern on the leaves.

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), “a quintessential spring ephemeral.”

At the base of a tree near a small river, Cagle points out a flower called spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), “a quintessential spring ephemeral.” Some flowers, like the common bluet we saw earlier, thrive in disturbed areas, but plants like the spring beauty need rich, undisturbed habitat. That makes them good indicator species, species that can help scientists gauge environmental conditions and habitat quality. When a natural area is being restored, for example, scientists can measure restoration progress by comparing the “restoration site” to an undisturbed “reference site.”

According to Cagle, the spring beauty is pollinated by “bee flies… flies that kind of look like bees.” After pollination, the flowers turn pink. Cagle says this is common among ephemerals. One theory is that the color change signifies which flowers have already been pollinated, but others think it’s just a result of senescence, or aging.

Spring beauties are also “photonastic,” meaning they open and close in response to changing light conditions. “There is some evidence that the Iroquois would eat this plant in order to prevent conception,” Cagle says, but today the plant—like many spring ephemerals—is under protection in some areas. Human activities, sadly, have contributed to the decline of too many spring ephemerals.

Alum root (Heuchera americana) near the end of the walk. According to Cagle, its roots can be used “to form mordant for dyes.” Members of the Saxifrage family, which includes alum root, often have five petals, five sepals, and five stamens.

Not all of the plants we saw are spring ephemerals. Some, although they bloom in early spring, “wouldn’t technically be considered ephemeral because their leaves stick around even if their blooms don’t last long.” True ephemerals, on the other hand, “are plants that just seem to disappear off the face of the planet (or the forest floor) after a few weeks,” Cagle says. Only three of the species we found during the workshop are true ephemerals: the windflower, trout lily, and spring beauty. However, these aren’t the only spring ephemerals found in the area. Cagle’s personal favorite is bloodroot, with its “bright white petals” and pollen “that looks like it’s glowing.”

Next time you’re in the woods, keep your eyes out for ephemerals and other early spring flowers, but look quickly. They won’t be here for long.

By Sophie Cox

Post and Photos by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

What is The Duke Summer Experiences Database?

Graphics courtesy of Catherine Angst, Director of Communications in the Division of Experiential Education at Duke University.

Pre-pandemic, Duke undergraduates looking for a good summer experience might have seen something good at an in-person fair or maybe heard about an opportunity from a favorite professor. But there was a lot of luck involved.

Now, thanks to the Duke Summer Experiences database, which launched in late January, undergrads can view a variety of summer opportunities in one centralized place. They can search by area of interest, type of program, program cost, year in school, and several other filters.

“Duke Summer Experiences is a resource for all of Duke,” says Catherine Angst, Director of Communications in the Division of Experiential Education, “because it’s an easily searchable, permanent database that allows people to select the features of an opportunity that are important to them.”

Angst explains that the new database is “an evolution of the Duke summer opportunities fair and the ‘Keep Exploring’ project.”

In previous years, Duke organized an in-person fair with representatives from various summer programs. During the pandemic, the “Keep Exploring” project was created to “[provide] students with summer opportunities and mentorship during a time when not a lot of traditional opportunities were operating because of COVID.” The two programs joined forces, she said, and ultimately expanded into the Duke Summer Experiences website.

By aggregating opportunities into one place, the database should increase awareness and access for summer programs.

Dean Sarah Russell, Director of the Undergraduate Research Support Office, thinks this might be especially valuable for research opportunities, which she says tend to be less publicized. “Previously,” she says, “students might know about DukeEngage, GEO, or summer courses, but would have to rely on word of mouth or, if they were lucky, a tip from faculty or advisors to find out about smaller, lesser-known programs.”

Ms. Leigh Ann Muth-Waring, Assistant Director in Employer Relations at the Career Center, sees similar benefits to the new database: “Prior to the website’s creation, students had to actively search for information about summer programs by contacting individual departments on campus,” sometimes causing students to miss deadlines. The Duke Summer Experiences website, on the other hand, provides easy-to-navigate and up-to-date information.

Another goal of the Duke Summer Experiences database, Ms. Angst says, is to “build a community of practice where administrators can share best practices, resources, and lessons learned.”

Dr. Karen Weber, Executive Director of the Office of University Scholars and Fellows, hopes this will “enable administrators across campus to collaborate more effectively together and improve programmatic outcomes.” For instance, “They can communicate on shared initiatives, such as developing successful recruitment and marketing strategies, creating student applications, editing participation agreements, addressing student and administrative issues, engaging with faculty, and assessing programs.”

Along with making summer opportunities easier to find and encouraging administrative collaboration, Duke Summer Experiences is also beta-testing a new application process that would allow students to use one application to apply for multiple opportunities at once. Muth-Waring said the Duke Experiences Application “allows the student to complete one questionnaire with general information (name, major, etc.) which then can be used to apply to multiple Duke-sponsored summer programs.” It also provides links to other programs students might be interested in.

Ms. Angst also sees the new application system as a valuable tool. She hopes that it will reduce “application fatigue” among students looking for summer opportunities.

The Career Center is already using the new application platform for their summer Internship Funding Program, which encourages participation in unpaid or low-paying summer internships by providing financial support to students. According to Ms. Muth-Waring, the new application system “has helped us streamline our program’s application process so that it is easier and less burdensome for students.” Streamlining the process of finding summer opportunities is a major goal of the Summer Experiences website as well. Ultimately, Ms. Muth-Waring says, “both the Duke Summer Experiences Database and the Duke Experiences Application are creating an easier way for students to learn about and apply to university-sponsored summer programs, research opportunities, internships, and funding sources.” For students seeking summer opportunities through Duke, the Summer Experiences website can make the process easier.

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

The Mind Behind Muser

Biology professor Sheila Patek remembers when she was an undergraduate, petrified as she waded through the world of academia in search of a research position. Knocking on door after door, Patek promised herself that if she was able to enter that world of research, she was going to change it; she was going to help students find opportunities and shift the rigid, exclusionary culture of academia.

Years later, Professor Patek was able to keep her promise. She created Muser, a website to connect students to research opportunities in an effort “to achieve accessible, transparent, equitable, and multidisciplinary research experiences for students and mentors.”

Patek first began this effort as a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts, where she found few efficient pathways for undergraduates to find research opportunities. Patek had grown accustomed to being at UC Berkeley, where they utilized a fully integrated system known as the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program. The University of Massachusetts was more reminiscent of Patek’s own undergrad experience, and it was there that she and her colleagues began working on the first version of Muser’s software. This is the version that she brought with her when she came to Duke.

Here, we’re lucky to have a slew of resources — DukeList, the Undergraduate Research Support Office, Bass Connections — that are intended to help students pursue research. However, Patek says that Muser distinguishes itself by being specifically designed to address the many barriers that still prevent students from pursuing research — from a lack of support and resources to racial and gender biases. 

Team Muser: (from left) Sheila Patek, Founder; Sonali Sanjay, Co-Student Leader; Katherine Wang, Co-Student Leader; Theo Cai, Duke Undergrad Muser Director and Nowicki Fellow (Credit: Ben Schelling)

One way Muser does this is by making all initial applications anonymous. Patek mentions studies that have found that things like the race and gender connotation of names have significant influence on who gets a position; for example, when given CVs that are identical except for the gender of the names, faculty are more likely to rate the male CVs higher. From the mentor side of Muser, research leads see students’ personal statements first, then must formally review the applications if they wish to view all the information the student has provided — including their names. Patek notes that it has surprised and perhaps frustrated many mentors, but it’s a feature for the benefit of students; it allows them to first be heard without the preconceptions attached to something like their name.

On the flip side, Muser tries to keep things as transparent as possible for students (although anonymous mentors are in the works). There are set timelines — called “rounds” — in which mentors post positions and students apply then hear back. With most other forums for research like DukeList, students are expected to check in and apply constantly — not even knowing if they will get a response. Muser solves this through these rounds, as well as a unique “star” system: mentors that actually review every application get a gold star, visible to students applying. 

So far, over three thousand (3000) undergraduates have used the software, and Patek estimates that in 2021, 20% of Duke undergraduates had, at some point, held a research position thanks to Muser. She also boasts the diversity of research leads that have become involved with Muser; it features professors, graduate students, and lab managers alike as mentors, who represent a better gender and diversity balance than academia as a whole. But as much progress has been made, Patek’s ultimate dream would be for every project in every department to be posted on Muser, available for undergraduates who don’t have to worry about being denied because of bigotry or ignored altogether. 

“The culture of academia is fundamentally opaque to everyone not in it,” Patek notes, but she and the Muser team are doing everything they can to change that. The newest version of Muser’s software open source on GitHub and available for free — has recently been adopted by Harvey Mudd College and the University of Massachusetts, and Patek expresses her hope for the idea to spread nationwide. 

Universities that have adopted Muser

The website used to be called MUSER — an acronym meaning Matching Undergraduates to Science and Engineering Research — but nowadays, it’s known simply as “Muser.” I’ve been told that the rebranding is a play on words, referencing the Muses of Greek and Roman mythology who oversaw the full range of arts and sciences, to represent all thinkers. 

The next round of Muser for Summer 2022 research positions opens on February 19. Mentors can post opportunities NOW, until February 18. For more information, visit the website and check out this fantastic article introducing Muser.

Materials For a Changing World… What is That?

Everything in our world is made from materials, meaning life is enabled by material development and efficiency. In today’s society, from constant technological revolution to the global pandemic, life as we know it is always evolving. But as the world around us evolves, the materials around us also need to evolve to keep up with current demands. But how? As a part of Duke University’s annual Research Week on Feb. 3, researchers from a multitude of practices offered their wisdom and research.

Moderated by Dr. Catherine L. Brinson, Ph.D., the panel hosted three Duke Scholars and their research on ‘Materials for a Changing World’. “The development of new materials can really be key in solving some of the more critical challenges of our time,” Brinson maintained.

Dr. David Beratan explaining his research on bio-machines and their material efficiency.

The first scholar to present was R.J Reynolds distinguished professor of chemistry, Dr. David N Beratan, Ph.D. His research concerns the transition from soft, wet, and tiny research machines to more durable, long-term research machines in the science field. “The machines of biology tend to be stochastic and floppy rather than deterministic and hard,” Beratan began. “They’re messy and there are lots of moving parts. They’re intrinsically noisy and error-prone, etc…They’re very different from the kinds of things you see under the hood of your car, and we’d really like to understand how they work and what lessons we might derive from them for our world.” His complex research and research group have aided in bridging the gap in knowledge regarding the transition of biological functional machines to synthetic ones.

Dr.Rubinstein presenting his research on materials at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering in 2019.

The panel continued with Aleksandar S. Vesic Distinguished Professor in mechanical engineering, Dr. Michael Rubinstein, Ph.D. His research involves the development of self-healing materials across multiple spectrums. “What you want to think about is materials that can heal themselves,” he stated. “If there’s a crack or a failure in a material, we would like the material to heal itself without external perturbation involvement. So it could be done by the other diffusion of molecules across some physical approaches, or by a chemical approach where you have bonds that were broken to the form.” His research on this possibility has made strides in the scientific field, especially in a time of such ecological stress and demand for materials.

Dr. Segura talking with Dr. Brinson on her research involving self-healing materials.

The panel concluded with biomedical engineering professor Dr. Tatiana Segura, Ph.D. Segura talked about work they are doing at their lab regarding materials that can be used to heal the human body after damage or injury. She began by mentioning that “we are a materials lab and that’s what we’re interested in designing. So what are we inspired by? Well, we are really inspired by the ability of our body to heal.” At her lab, a primary motivation is healing disabilities after a stroke. “Sometimes you have something that you deal with for a long time no matter how your body healed. And that inspires us to consider how do we actually engage this process with materials to make it go better and actually make our body heal in a way that we can promote repair and regeneration.” Understanding this process is a complex one, she explained, but one that she believes is crucial in understanding the design of the material.

‘Materials for a Changing World’ was yet another extremely powerful speaker series offered this year during Duke Research Week. Our world is changing, and our materials need to keep up. With the help of these experts, material innovation has a bright future.

Written by Skylar Hughes
Class of 2025

The Climate Crisis is Imminent. These Experts Offer Solutions.

In April of 2019, the first government declared climate change to be a national emergency. Since then, over 1,900 local governments and more than 23 national governments have expressed the same sentiment.

A 2021 report released by the IPCC labeled climate change a ‘code red’ for humanity, and every day more than 2 million people search the term ‘climate crisis’ on Google. So it’s apparent, the climate crisis is imminent. What’s the solution? Experts at Duke’s annual Research Week posed their research-based solutions during a virtual panel hosted on February 1st. (View the Session)

The panel, mediated by Biology professor Mohamed Noor, began with a solution posed by professors Mark Borsuk and Jonathan Wiener. Known as solar radiation modification, SRM is “an attempt to moderate global warming by intentionally increasing the amount of incoming sunlight that is reflected by the atmosphere back to space,” according to Borsuk. Its primary technique is stratospheric aerosol injection. Wiener explained that their research is “trying to understand the risk… And we’re working to study these multiple impacts because all too often, as we’re all familiar with human decision making at the individual level or the governmental public policy level tends to focus on one thing at a time.” However, even with possible governance challenges at play, their research poses an extremely cheap yet effective solution for avoiding some of the worst impacts of climate change.

Dalia Patino Echeverri’s presentation on GRACE, an energy solution.

Next up on the panel was Dalia Patino Echeverri, an associate professor at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. She began by ruminating on the challenges faced in Texas after the snowstorm last year, and how climate change intensified those challenges. Her research focuses on how to address the electricity issues that climate change is producing in our nation, through a system called ‘GRACE’. ‘GRACE’ is a power grid that is risk-aware for clean, smart energy usage.

“It considers the forecast of electricity, the amount of load on the forecast of electricity generation from wind and sun of resources, and looks at the availability of conventional resources to schedule this commercial resources.” said Echeverri. Its operating system is extremely intelligent minimizing expected value and total cost of energy during times of climate crisis.

Brian Silliman’s presentation on Duke Restore.

Finally, a solution was presented from Brian Silliman, the Rachel Carson Distinguished Professor for marine biology. He introduced a more grassroots approach to climate restoration, called Duke Restore.

“A lot of our research and those of others have shown that the presence of restored marine environments greatly protects human societies on the coastline from increasing threat storm surge, and flooding generated in large part by climate change impacts, etc.” Silliman began.

Duke Restore aims to go out into ecosystems and restore the shorelines that have been lost, indirectly aiding in climate crisis alleviation. Silliman is currently collaborating with governments and other conservation organizations to help change the way they plan to restore these ecosystems from the bottom up. ““We’re doing this here in North Carolina with the US Marine Corps, changing the planting designs to switch the restoration trajectory from failure to success.”

Kay Jowers explaining her ideas for a more equitable approach to policy solutions.

Kay Jowers, a Senior Policy Associate at the Duke Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, closed out the panel event with some final thoughts.

“My charge is to give you some food for thought about creating a more supportive environment for environmental and climate justice at Duke,” she began. She explained the need for action as compared to documentation and explained that equitable approaches are needed to avoid a climate disaster.

“In the world of Environmental Justice Studies, the communities, and the scholars have been calling for less problematization and documenting of problems, and more orientation towards solutions.” Her sentiments resonated deeply with the theme of the panel, as solution-based research is of paramount importance in the 21st century.

The Duke Research Week panel on climate change solutions posed tangible explications for the ever imminent climate crisis happening around the world. Though climate change is apparent now more than ever, researchers like these hold the solutions for the future.

Post by Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025

Opening the Black Box: Duke Researchers Discuss Bias in AI

Artificial intelligence has not only inherited many of the strongest capabilities of the human brain, but it has also proven to use them more efficiently and effectively. Object recognition, map navigation, and speech translation are just a few of the many skills that modern AI programs have mastered, and the list will not stop growing anytime soon.

Unfortunately, AI has also magnified one of humanity’s least desirable traits: bias. In recent years, algorithms influenced by bias have often caused more problems than they sought to fix.

When Google’s image recognition AI was found to be classifying some Black people as gorillas in 2015, the only consolation for those affected was that AI is improving at a rapid pace, and thus, incidents of bias would hopefully begin to disappear. Six years later, when Facebook’s AI made virtually the exact same mistake by labeling a video of Black men as “primates,” both tech fanatics and casual observers could see a fundamental flaw in the industry.

Jacky Alciné’s tweet exposing Google’s racist AI algorithm enraged thousands in 2015.


On November 17th, 2021, two hundred Duke Alumni living in all corners of the world – from Pittsburgh to Istanbul and everywhere in between – assembled virtually to learn about the future of algorithms, AI, and bias. The webinar, which was hosted by the Duke Alumni Association’s Forever Learning Institute, gave four esteemed Duke professors a chance to discuss their view of bias in the artificial intelligence world.

Dr. Stacy Tantum, Bell-Rhodes Associate Professor of the Practice of Electrical and Computer Engineering, was the first to mention the instances of racial bias in image classification systems. According to Tantum, early facial recognition did not work well for people of darker skin tones because the underlying training data – observations that inform the model’s learning process – did not have a broad representation of all skin tones. She further echoed the importance of model transparency, noting that if an engineer treats an AI as a “black box” – or a decision-making process that does not need to be explained – then they cannot reasonably assert that the AI is unbiased.

Stacy Tantum, who has introduced case studies on ethics to students in her Intro to Machine Learning Class, echoes the importance of teaching bias in AI classrooms.

While Tantum emphasized the importance of supervision of algorithm generation, Dr. David Hoffman – Steed Family Professor of the Practice of Cybersecurity Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy – explained the integration of algorithm explainability and privacy. He pointed to the emergence of regulatory legislation in other countries that ensure restrictions, accountability, and supervision of personal data in cybersecurity applications. Said Hoffman, “If we can’t answer the privacy question, we can’t put appropriate controls and protections in place.”

To discuss the implications of blurry privacy regulations, Dr. Manju Puri – J.B. Fuqua Professor of Finance at the Fuqua School of Business – discussed how the big data feeding modern AI algorithms impact each person’s digital footprint. Puri noted that data about a person’s phone usage patterns can be used by banks to decide whether that person should receive a loan. “People who call their mother every day tend to default less, and people who walk the same path every day tend to default less.” She contends that the biggest question is how to behave in a digital world where every action can be used against us.

Dr. Philip Napoli has observed behaviors in the digital world for several years as James R. Shepley Professor of Public Policy at the Sanford School, specifically focusing on self-reinforcing cycles of social media algorithms. He contends that Facebook’s algorithms, in particular, reward content that gets people angry, which motivates news organizations and political parties to post galvanizing content that will swoop through the feeds of millions. His work shows that AI algorithms can not only impact the behaviors of individuals, but also massive organizations.

At the end of the panel, there was one firm point of agreement between all speakers: AI is tremendously powerful. Hoffman even contended that there is a risk associated with not using artificial intelligence, which has proven to be a revolutionary tool in healthcare, finance, and security, among other fields. However, while proven to be immensely impactful, AI is not guaranteed to have a positive impact in all use cases – rather, as shown by failed image recognition platforms and racist healthcare algorithms that impacted millions of Black people, AI can be incredibly harmful.

Thus, while many in the AI community dream of a world where algorithms can be an unquestionable force for good, the underlying technology has a long way to go. What stands between the status quo and that idealistic future is not more data or more code, but less bias in data and code.

Post by Shariar Vaez-Ghaemi, Class of 2025


Keeping the Aging Brain Connected With Words and Music

In an era of seemingly endless panaceas for age-based mental decline, navigating through the clutter can be a considerable challenge.

However, a team of Duke researchers, led by cognitive neuroscientist Edna Andrews, PhD, think they may have found a robust and long-term solution to countering this decline and preventing pathologies in an aging brain. Their approach does not require an invasive procedure or some pharmacological intervention, just a good ear, some sheet music, and maybe an instrument or two.

Dr. Edna Andrews, pictured in 2017. (Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography)

In early 2021, Andrews and her team published one of the first studies to look at musicianship’s impact in building cognitive brain reserve. Cognitive brain reserve, simply put, is a way to qualify the resilience of the brain in the face of various pathologies. High levels of cognitive reserve can help stave off dementia, Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis for years on end. These levels are quantified through structural measurements of gray matter and white matter in the brain. The white matter may be thought of as the insulated wiring that helps different areas of the brain communicate.

In this particular study, Andrews’ team focused on measurements of white matter integrity through an advanced MRI technique known as diffusion tensor imaging, to see what shape it is in.

Previous neuroimaging studies have revealed that normal aging leads to a decrease in white matter integrity across the brain. Over the past fifteen years, however, researchers have found that complex sensory-motor activities may be able to slow down and even reverse the loss of white matter integrity. The two most robust examples of complex sensory-motor activities are multilingualism and musicianship.

Andrews has long been fascinated by the brain and languages. In 2014, she published one of the seminal texts in the field of cognitive neurolinguistics where she laid the groundwork for a new neuroscience model of language. Around the same time, she published the first and to-date only longitudinal fMRI study of second language acquisition. Her findings, built upon decades of research in cognitive neuroscience and linguistics, served as the foundation for her popular FOCUS course: Neuroscience/Human Language.

Dr. Andrews’ 2014 book. Published by Cambridge University Press

In more recent years, she has shifted her research focus to understanding the impact of musicianship on cognitive brain reserve. Invigorated by her lived experience as a professional musician and composer, she wanted to see whether lifelong musicianship could increase white matter integrity as one ages. She and her team hypothesized that musicianship would increase white matter integrity in certain fiber tracts related to the act of music-making

To accomplish this goal, she and her team scanned the brains of eight different musicians ranging in age from 20 years to 67 years old. These musicians dedicated an average of three hours per day to practice and had gained years’ worth of performance experience. After participants were placed into the MRI machine, the researchers used diffusion tensor imaging to calculate fractional antisotropy (FA) values for certain white matter fiber tracts. A higher FA value meant higher integrity and, consequently, higher cognitive brain reserve. Andrews and her team chose to observe FA values in two fiber tracts, the superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF) and the uncinate fasciculus (UF), based on their relevance to musicianship in previous studies.

Relative location of subcortical white matter fiber tracts (lateral view). Image from Wikipedia

Previous studies of the two fiber tracts in non-musicians found that their integrity decreased with age. In other words, the older the participants, the lower their white matter integrity in these regions. After analyzing the anisotropy values via linear regression, they observed a clear positive correlation between age and fractional anisotropy in both fiber tracts. These trends were visible in both tracts of both the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Such an observation substantiated their hypothesis, suggesting that highly proficient musicianship can increase cognitive brain reserve as one ages.

These findings expand the existing literature of lifestyle changes that can improve brain health beyond diet and exercise. Though more demanding, neurological changes resulting from the acquisition and maintenance of language and music capabilities have the potential to endure longer into the life cycle.

Andrews is one of the strongest advocates of lifelong learning, not solely for the satisfaction it brings about, but also for the tangible impact it can have on cognitive brain reserve. Picking up a new language or a new instrument should not be pursuits confined to the young child.

It appears, then, that the kindest way to treat the brain is to throw something new at it. A little bit of practice couldn’t hurt either.

Post by Vibhav Nandagiri, Class of 2025

Decentralized Finance and the Power of Smart Contracts

When people use apps or services like Netflix, Instagram, Amazon, etc. they sign, or rather virtually accept, digital user agreements. Digital agreements have been around since the 1990s. These agreements are written and enforced by the institutions that create these services and products. However, in certain conditions, these systems fail and these digital or service-level agreements can be breached, causing people to feel robbed. 

A recent example of this is the Robinhood scandal that occurred in mid-2021. Essentially, people came together and all wanted to buy the same stock. However, Robinhood ended up restricting buying, citing issues with volatile stock and regulatory agreements. As a result, they ended up paying $70 million dollars in fines for system outages and misleading customers. And individual customers were left feeling robbed. This was partially the result of centralization and Robinhood having full control over the platform as well as enforcing the digital agreement.

Zak Ayesh Presenting on Chainlink
and Decentralized Smart Contracts

Zak Ayesh, a developer advocate at Chainlink recently came to Duke to talk about decentralized Smart Contracts that could solve many of the problems with current centralized digital agreements and traditional paper contracts as well. 

What makes smart contracts unique is that they programmatically implement a series of if-then rules without the need for a third-party human interaction. While currently these are primarily being used on blockchains, they were actually created by computer scientist Nick Szabo in 1994. Most smart contracts now run on blockchains because it allows them to remain decentralized and transparent. If unfamiliar with blockchain refer to my previous article here. 

Smart contracts are self-executing contracts with the terms of the agreement being directly written into computer code.

Zak Ayesh

There are several benefits to decentralized contracts. The first is transparency. Because every action on a blockchain is recorded and publicly available, the enforcement of smart contracts is unavoidably built-in. Next is trust minimization and guaranteed execution. With smart contracts, there is reduced counterparty risk — that’s the probability one party involved in a transaction or agreement might default on its contractual obligation because neither party has control of the agreement’s execution or enforcement. Lastly, they are more efficient due to automation. Operating on blockchains allows for cheaper and more frictionless transactions than traditional alternatives. For instance, the complexities of cross-border remittances involving multiple jurisdictions and sets of legal compliances can be simplified through coded automation in smart contracts.

Dr. Campbell Harvey, a J. Paul Sticht Professor of International Business at Fuqua, has done considerable research on smart contracts as well, culminating in the publication of a book, DeFi and the Future of Finance which was released in the fall of 2021.

In the book, Dr. Harvey explores the role smart contracts play in decentralized finance and how Ethereum and other smart contract platforms give rise to the ability for decentralized application or dApp. Additionally, smart contracts can only exist as long as the chain or platform they live on exists. However, because these platforms are decentralized, they remove the need for a third party to mediate the agreement. Harvey quickly realized how beneficial this could be in finance, specifically decentralized finance or DeFi where third-party companies, like banks, mediate agreements at a high price.  

“Because it costs no more at an organization level to provide services to a customer with $100 or $100 million in assets, DeFi proponents believe that all meaningful financial infrastructure will be replaced by smart contracts which can provide more value to a larger group of users,” Harvey explains in the book

Beyond improving efficiency, this also creates greater accessibility to financial services. Smart contracts provide a foundation for DeFi by eliminating the middleman through publicly traceable coded agreements. However, the transition will not be completely seamless and Harvey also investigates the risks associated with smart contracts and advancements that need to be made for them to be fully scalable.

Ultimately, there is a smart contract connectivity problem. Essentially, smart contracts are unable to connect with external systems, data feeds, application programming interfaces (APIs), existing payment systems, or any other off-chain resource on their own. This is something called the Oracle Problem which Chainlink is looking to solve.

Harvey explains that when a smart contract is facilitating an exchange between two tokens, it determines the price by comparing exchange rates with another similar contract on the same chain. The other smart contract is therefore acting as a price oracle, meaning it is providing external price information. However, there are many opportunities to exploit this such as purchasing large amounts on one oracle exchange in order to alter the price and then go on to purchase even more on a different exchange in the opposite direction. This allows for capitalization on price movement by manipulating the information the oracle communicates to other smart contracts or exchanges. 

That being said, smart contracts are being used heavily, and Pratt senior Manmit Singh has been developing them since his freshman year along with some of his peers in the Duke Blockchain Lab. One of his most exciting projects involved developing smart contracts for cryptocurrency-based energy trading on the Ethereum Virtual Machine allowing for a more seamless way to develop energy units.

One example of how this could be used outside of the crypto world is insurance. Currently, when people get into a car accident it takes months or even a year to evaluate the accident and release compensation. In the future, there could be sensors placed on cars connected to smart contracts that immediately evaluate the damage and payout.

Decentralization allows us to avoid using intermediaries and simply connect people to people or people to information as opposed to first connecting people to institutions that can then connect them to something else. This also allows for fault tolerance: if one blockchain goes down, the entire system does not go down with it. Additionally, because there is no central source controlling the system, it is very difficult to gain control of thus protecting against attack resistance and collusion resistance. While risks like the oracle problem need to be further explored, the world and importance of DeFi, as well as smart contracts, is only growing.

And as Ayesh put it, “This is the future.”

Post by Anna Gotskind, Class of 2022

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