Each sought to decrease costs and increase scalability for medical procedures. In short, they are expert inventors who are doing good in the world.
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.
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 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.
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!
The furious dribbles across the hardwood floors. The seas of blue consuming the stands. Anyone who has ever attended, or even heard of the legendary Duke Vs UNC basketball game likely holds a vivid picture of the intense nature of this game.
While there is little question that this multi-million dollar event is the most beneficial of the year for both programs, a recent collaboration between the faculty from both schools raised the question: Beneficial for whom?
Friday, Nov. 10, I had the pleasure of attending a sports symposium organized by Duke and UNC with a focus on the exploitive nature of collegiate athletics. Duke hosted, but both schools brought in a multitude of faculty members, attorneys, and media professionals to discuss a wide range of topics regarding the relationship between college sports and the detrimental effects on athletes. Despite the immense range of topics, there was a common consensus among all speakers and attendees of the event: Some things must change.
Panelists (l-r) Victoria Jackson, Maddie Salamone, Olu Kopano, and Payton Barish.
They said there are three major problems that currently plague the world of college athletics: the lack of representation, the lack of long-term benefits, and most importantly, the illusion of success portrayed to these athletes.
Among athletes, a lack of representation in decision-making spheres appears to be a double-sided problem. Any remedy seems far-fetched without major structural changes.
A number of decision-making bodies exist for the purpose of addressing athletic issues and decisions. One of the most notable is the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), a representative body created for the purpose of granting athletes a voice. However, its limited scope, the athletes’ lack of knowledge on certain issues, and the lack of authority granted to the athletes’ decisions highlight the conference’s inability to serve as a proper representative body.
Many attribute this lack of representation to the fact that athletes are stretched far too thin, stripping them of the time needed to truly understand the expectations of the rules established by the NCAA. Symposium speakers argued that time and resources need to be built into their schedules, and not used as an extra burden, to grant them clarity on their rights, structural changes, and shifts in power that affect them.
Panelists also said many athletes emerge from college without developing fundamental life skills such as being able to do their own taxes. Many are left unable to properly afford to manage injuries sustained in college as they aren’t granted any long-term/lifelong healthcare services. And many international athletes are unequipped to deal with the visa-based issues that may arise from an inability to not only manage expectations set by their sport but also those set by their schools, and even ICE.
Throughout the symposium, a common point made was the fact that there are abundant staff present for the development of the game, but few staff for the development of the athletes as individuals.
This idea formed the second consensus of the discussion: there needs to be a more intentional focus on the resources for athletes, not only based in athletic performance, but also within the scope of mental, physical and long-term health across the board.
Finally, the illusion of success offered to athletes was a major grievance expressed during the symposium. When signing athletes on to the team, it is customary for recruiters to essentially promise athletes an idea of future success, whether it be through going pro or earning financial liberation. This, however, has proven to not be the case for everyone, as most careers end after those four years of college. This idea is detrimental to athletes who’s intense dedication and tunnel vision toward these goals often prevent them from developing a Plan B. Many become susceptible to difficulties recovering from this, fueled by a lack of resources and representation.
While athletes are now able to receive compensation for their “names, images and likenesses” (NIL), it is still breadcrumbs compared to the amount going to coaches and staff. This illusion is fueled by scholarships and third-party sponsorships that allow the parties currently bringing in million dollars salaries to under-compensate the source of this income: the athletes themselves. Many at the symposium concluded that this was a job for the athletes to fix, while others claimed that this problem belonged to the coaches, recruiters, and universities. Both parties, however, agreed that this change must come immediately, or these issues will continue to hurt many more athletes in the long run.
Coordinator and panelists (l-r): Tracie Canada, Javier Wallace, Nathan Kalman-Lamb, Erianne Weight and Duane Ballen.
The symposium was a wonderfully unifying event that started a conversation around countering the harmful effects and structural disadvantages faced by collegiate athletes. It showed the ways in which athletes have spent years supporting a system that doesn’t fully support their needs.
Victoria Jackson, a historian and former long-distance runner from Arizona State University, described efforts at bringing an end to these disparities as a “courageous act.” However, if the two great rival schools can set aside their decades-long competition for the purpose of improving the lives of their athletes, then change in this sphere is completely fathomable for athletes everywhere.
Keynote speaker Dr. Victoria Jackson of Arizona State University during her opening statements.
We all have the teachers who changed our lives. They paid special attention to us, taught with grace and generosity, and just seemed to understand us on another level.
For Navya Adhikarla, that professor opened her to a new understanding of herself. As an international graduate student, her professor helped her participate in class discussions, feel comfortable asking questions on class material, and, most importantly, navigate her neurodiversity and accommodations.
These experiences and more were shared at the Neurodiversity Student Perspectives Panel hosted by Neurodiversity Student Connections on September 26. The panel was an opportunity for faculty and staff to learn more about accommodating and understanding neurodiverse students.
Duke Neurodiversity Connections defines neurodiversity as “[recognizing] the diversity of human minds and the inherent worth of all individuals. As a social justice movement, the neurodiversity movement aims to celebrate the strengths and advocate for the needs of those with autism, ADHD, and other neurological differences.” The organization works with students like Adhikarla to create a positive campus culture and academic environment. You can read more about Duke Neurodiversity Connections and their resources on their website.
The three panelists came from a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Alex Winn is a recent 2023 graduate who is currently the technical director of the Duke Cyber team and does research with the Department of Mathematics. Jadyn Cleary is a senior at Duke who is in the Duke Disability Alliance and acts as the President of The Clubhouse. Navya Adhikarla is a graduate student in the Master of Engineering Management program. She serves as the Student Program Director at Duke GPSS. The panel was moderated by Sam Brandsen, Ph.D., who graduated from Duke and is currently a research scholar at the Center for Autism and Brain Development.
The panelists talked about the various barriers they’ve encountered at Duke: feeling ashamed to use their accommodations, a lack of psychological safety on work teams, and inaccessibility to resources. Cleary talked about the barriers within the accommodations themselves. She said that even when accommodations are given, it often feels like “[they’re pushing you into] how to make you act like a neurotypical student when you aren’t” instead of genuinely serving neurodiverse students.
However, a common thread was the power of a professor to change a student’s experience. All three panelists spoke about how individual professors were the ones to connect them to resources such as the Duke Student Disability Access Office (SDAO), the Duke Disability Alliance, the Clubhouse, Duke Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS), DukeReach, and Duke Neurodiversity Connections. Without these professors, the panelists said they wouldn’t have been able to find these resources themselves. Instead, it was simply luck that they had run into professors who could inform them of the support that Duke offers.
Because of this shared experience, the panelists wished for resources to be explicitly accessible by publicizing them during orientation week and other visible places. They also suggested creating resources like self-advocacy groups, catered career coaches, and specialized mental health services.
Another common piece of advice was for professors to “pre-accommodate” all students. This could look like allowing mental health days with no questions asked, giving multiple forms to complete an assignment (essay, voice recording, infographic, etc.), using various modes of communication, offering explicit instructions for assignments, and giving adequate time for all students to finish the exam. By doing so, professors eliminate singling out students with accommodations, preventing the fear of embarrassment from peers that neurodiverse students often face.
The panelists offered numerous specific examples of how Duke administration and faculty can create a more inclusive environment. At the end of the session, all three panelists urged professors to educate themselves on how to make their classrooms inclusive. But the overwhelming sentiment was asking for professors to care. Winn, in particular, emphasized the importance of the power of example when it comes to professors, graduate students, or TAs sharing their own experiences with neurodiversity: “Seeing others be comfortable in that way has always helped me be comfortable in that way.”
Adhikarla said about the professor who changed her perspective: “She really cared, that’s all she did. She really cared.”
As the world undergoes the great energy transition — from fossil fuels to alternative energy and batteries — rare earth metals are becoming more precious.
Open The Economist, Forbes, or Fortune, and you’ll see an article nearly every day on Lithium, Nickel, or Copper. For investors seeking to profit off of the transition, lithium seems like a sure bet. Dubbed “white gold” for electric vehicles, the lightweight metal plays a key role in the cathodes of all types of lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles (EVs). Although EVs produce fewer greenhouse gasses than gas- or diesel-powered vehicles, their batteries require more minerals, particularly lithium.
On Sept. 26, Duke’s campus welcomed the first in a series of discussions on climate and energy diplomacy focused on the challenges and opportunities of mining and development in South America’s Lithium Triangle. In a room crowded with curious undergraduate and graduate students alike, some lucky enough to have snagged a seat while others stood at the perimeters, three experts discussed the possible future of Bolivia as a major player in the global lithium market.
Duke Distinguished Professor Avner Vengosh, Nicholas Chair of Environmental Quality in the Nicholas School of the Environment, began by highlighting the staggering EV growth in 2020-2022: Sales of electric cars have more than tripled in three years, from around 4% of new car sales in 2020 to 14% in 2022. That number is expected to rise to 29.50% in 2028. Speaking of the critical element to EV production, lithium, Vengosh said frankly, “we don’t have enough.”
Lithium is mined from two major sources, Vengosh explained. The first is from hard-rock pegmatite, where lithium is extracted through a series of chemical processes. Most of these deposits are found in Australia, the world’s biggest source. The second is from lithium-rich brines, typically found in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, also known as the “Lithium Triangle.” These brine deposits are typically found in underground reservoirs beneath salt flats or saltwater lakes. The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the world’s largest salt lake, and the largest lithium source in the world. It stretches more than 4,050 square miles and attracts tourists with its reflective, mirror-like surface.
A group of Duke students led by a PhD candidate pursuing research on Bolivian lithium development recently traveled to Bolivia to understand different aspects of lithium mining. They asked questions including:
How renewable is the lithium brine?
Are there other critical raw minerals in the lithium-rich brines?
What are the potential environmental effects of lithium extraction?
What is the water footprint of the lithium extraction process?
Is water becoming a limiting factor for lithium production?
The Duke team conducted a study with the natural brine in the Salar, taking samples of deep brines, evaporation ponds, salts from evaporation ponds, wastewaters, and the lithium carbonate. Vengosh said that “we can see some inconsistency in the chemistry of the water that is flowing into the chemistry of the brine.”
This indicates that there is a more complex geological process in the formation of the brine than the simple flow of water into the lake. The team also confirmed the high purity of the lithium carbonate product and that there are no impurities in the material. Additionally, the Duke team found that the wastewater chemistry produced after lithium carbonate production is not different from that of the original brines. Thus, there are no limitations for recycling the water back to the Salar system.
After Vengosh shared the findings of the Duke research team, Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network (AIN) in Cochabamba, Bolivia and Dr. Scott MacDonald, chief economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings and a Caribbean Policy Consortium Fellow, discussed Bolivia’s lithium policy. With the largest untapped lithium deposits in the world, Bolivia has constructed a pilot plan for their lithium production, but Ledebur highlighted that the biggest hurdle is scaling. Additionally, with a unique prior-consultation system in place between the central government and 36 ethnic and indigenous groups in Bolivia, natural resources are a key topic of concern and grassroots action. Ledebur said, “I don’t see that issue changing any time soon.”
Another hurdle is that Bolivian law requires that the extraction process is controlled by the state (the state must own 51%). Foreign investors have been hesitant to work with the central government, which nationalized lithium in 2008 despite, critics said, lacking much of the necessary technology and expertise.
Maxwell Radwin, a writer for Mongabay, writes, “Evo Morales, the former socialist president who served from 2006 to 2019, nationalized the industry, promising that foreign interests wouldn’t plunder Bolivia’s natural resources as they had in the past. Instead, he said, lithium would propel the country to the status of a world power. Morales didn’t just want to export lithium, though; he wanted to produce batteries and cars for export. This complicated deals with potential investors from France, Japan, Russia and South Korea, none of which came to fruition because, among other things, they were required to take on YLB (the state-owned lithium company) as an equal partner.”
Ledebur said, “At this point in time, the Bolivian government has signed three contracts… and I think things will fall into place.”
Naysayers say that the Bolivian government hasn’t done anything to take advantage of the massive market sitting beneath their Salars and that grassroot consultations don’t work. Ledebur said, “I don’t think that it’s perfect, but it’s happening.”
Duke students will return to Bolivia with professor Vengosh next year to conduct more research on the lithium extraction process. Then, they’ll be able to see the effects of this ‘happening’ first-hand.
Australia. For years it was more of a nebulous concept to me than a concrete place. It was a colorful patch on maps, home to animals I’d read about but never seen. Now it’s a place where I’ve run my hands over 1.9-billion-year-old stone, watched a platypus emerge from a river at dawn, gotten bitten on the tongue by an ant with a tasty green butt (long story), and spent a thousand other moments with wonderful people in places I hope to never forget.
That’s all thanks to Duke in Australia, a month-long biogeography course led by Alex Glass, Ph.D., and Nancy Lauer, Ph.D., that delves into Australian flora, fauna, geology, history, and culture. When people ask about my experience there this summer, I have a hard time answering. “Wonderful” doesn’t begin to cover it. The experience still doesn’t feel entirely real to me. Even when I was in Australia, watching a platypus or a parrot or standing on a beach with a sunrise on one side and a rainbow on the other, I sometimes couldn’t entirely believe where I was.
Disclaimer: When I say “Highlights from Duke in Australia,” I’m referring to my own personal highlights—some of which, let me assure you, were not universally popular with my classmates. Like the enormous crickets we saw on our rainforest night hike, or the time I found the shed skin of a huntsman spider and went around showing it to everyone nearby, or the delightfully squelchy mud coating the trail on one of our last hikes. For more detailed accounts of our day-to-day activities, check out the student blogs on the Duke in Australia 2023 website.
From the moment we landed in Sydney, I was keeping my eyes peeled for bird sightings. (I am slightly into birds. Just slightly.) Unless you count an ambiguous white flash seen through a bus window, my first bird sighting in Australia was a small group of rainbow lorikeets flying over the city. With a blue head and stomach, a green back, an orange-red breast, and flashes of yellow under the wings, the species is very well named.
Lorikeets weren’t the only birds we saw in Sydney. Common mynas, which always looked vaguely sinister to me, watched us while we ate dinner the first night. Pigeons strutted along the sidewalks—the only bird species I saw in Australia that I’d also seen in the US, except a possible peregrine falcon that I caught only a brief glimpse of during a hike. There were also Australian ibises all over the city, colloquially known as bin chickens for their dumpster-diving habits. Personally, I thought the ibises were lovely, regal birds.
There are other birds, however, that can no longer call Sydney home. One of my favorite sites in Sydney was the Forgotten Songs art installation at Angel Place. It is a short alley engraved with the names of fifty bird species that can no longer survive in the city. Empty bird cages hang suspended above the street. Our tour guide told us that the exhibit normally plays recordings of the birds, but that part was under renovation, so it was playing music instead. A few days later, I returned to the exhibit on my own so I’d have time to read every bird name. Those empty cages still haunt me.
On our first full day in Sydney, we went to Bondi Beach to explore the tidepools. There were crabs and octopi, seastars and anemones, necklace-like algae and tiny blue snails called little blue periwinkles. That afternoon, we sat on the beach and learned about microplastics from Lauer. (Not-so-fun fact: we eat a credit card’s worth of microplastics every week on average.) Some of us lingered on the beach afterward and went swimming. The water was frigid, but it was there, with cold water and sand swirling around me in a part of the ocean I’d never seen, much less swum in, that the reality of being on a new continent completely hit me.
Our first group hike was overwhelming, almost dizzying. Outside of urban Sydney, it was easier for me to recognize just how different Australia was from the US, and it was impossible to absorb everything at once. In every direction were unfamiliar plants and landscapes. Norfolk pine, coastal rosemary, mountain devil, sunshine wattle, Darwinia, flannel flower, gray spider flower…. I was especially entranced by casuarina, which looks shockingly like a pine tree but is actually a flowering plant that has evolved conifer-like traits to preserve water. We were in a heath, characterized by low-growing plants adapted to dry, nutrient-poor conditions. Nothing about it looked like the woods and fields and mountains back home.
Our focus that day was studying plants, but I was having a hard time focusing on any one thing for more than about a second. At one point, we were supposed to be observing a beautiful plant to my right, but half the group had already moved on to another species farther up the trail, and meanwhile, a bird I had certainly never seen in my life was perched remarkably cooperatively on a bush off to the left. There are too many things happening, I remember thinking. I was juggling my field notebook, hand lens, phone camera, and binoculars, and I didn’t even know where to look. I chose to stare at the bird, following the logic that it could fly away at any moment, whereas the plants would stay exactly where they were. That brilliant plan turned out to be faulty. The plants might stay still, but we wouldn’t—so much to see, so little time.
Our next stop was Katoomba, a small mountain town in New South Wales. It was a quiet, peaceful place, vastly different from Sydney. When I think of Katoomba, I think of the sulfur-crested cockatoo perched on a bakery sign just feet away from me and the flock of strikingly pink cockatoos called galahs in a local park. I think of the superb lyrebird that crossed our path directly in front of us and the rare Wollemi pine growing beside a road.
We took a hike at Wentworth Falls, where Darwin himself once walked. It’s part of the Great Dividing Range, but we learned that the mountains are actually “incised terrain,” formed when valleys were cut into a plateau, leaving “mountains” behind. We also drove to the Jenolan Caves and explored cavernous underground spaces bursting with crystal formations like stalactites, flowstone, and hollow soda straws. These lovely, fragile cave structures, or speleothems, are formed by the gradual deposition of dissolved minerals as water drips through a cave. Before we left, we saw an underground river with water so clear that I didn’t immediately realize I was looking at water at all.
Another day in Katoomba, our group took a gorgeous hike through a eucalypt forest. Literally everywhere I looked in that forest, there was something extraordinary. Ancient tree ferns. Ruby-red sap seeping out of a tree trunk. The Three Sisters rock formation framed by the aptly named Blue Mountains. Towering eucalypt and turpentine trees. At the end of the hike, we rode the Scenic Railway, the steepest in the world. It was terrifying—awesome, but terrifying.
Next, we flew to the Northern Territory, where we checked into our hostel in Darwin. We were now in crocodile country, home to the world’s largest reptile: the saltwater or estuarine crocodile. We were instructed to avoid going in any body of water, saltwater or otherwise, unless it was specifically designated as safe for swimming. (The name “saltwater crocodile” is misleading—the crocodiles can inhabit fresh water as well, and they are extremely aggressive and dangerous.) It was very important to be crocwise.
The first few days in Darwin, we didn’t see any crocodiles, but there were birds seemingly everywhere. Varied triller, which I originally misidentified as the buff-sided robin until a local eBird reviewer emailed me and asked me to correct my eBird report. Rainbow bee-eater, remarkably common for a bird that looks too beautiful to be real. Peaceful dove. Blue-faced honeyeater. Australasian figbird.
We took a hike that went through a beautiful mangrove, where we learned that the term mangrove isn’t specific to any particular type of plant; it’s used to refer to many very different species that have all adapted to the same challenges, including salinity, changing tides, and nutrient-poor soil. There were crabs and snails and birds—so many birds, some of which I still haven’t identified, like the group of black, crested birds with bright red inside their beaks.
When we emerged from the mangrove, we came across a nest of green weaver ants. Their bright green abdomens are rich in ascorbic acid, and the ants have traditionally been used for purposes ranging from treating colds to making a sort of “lemonade” to stimulating milk production. Many of us were eager to taste the ants, though Glass warned us that they “bite vigorously.” Some of my classmates carefully held an ant with their fingers while giving the abdomen a quick lick. I, on the other hand, decided to let an ant crawl onto my notebook while I licked it so it couldn’t bite my fingers. Clever, right? Well, it worked—the ant didn’t bite my fingers. It bit my tongue instead. “Vigorously.” Its mouthparts remained latched on even as I was spitting out ant parts onto the ground. I can’t blame it—I’d be upset, too, if a giant tried to lick me.
Before long, it was time for the jumping crocodile tour. We boarded a tour boat and floated down a seemingly peaceful river while our guide dangled hunks of meat from big fishing rods to bait the crocodiles to leap several feet out of the water and snap their jaws around the food. Their bite force, incidentally, is the highest of any living animal, up to 3700 pounds per square inch. Jumping is natural for the crocodiles—they hunt that way to snag animals like birds and wallabies that venture too close to the water. Being that close to enormous predators roused some deep, primeval fear in me. To a crocodile, I would make excellent prey. The jumping crocodile tour, needless to say, was very memorable. Our class later had a long and far-ranging discussion on the many types of ecotourism experiences we’d participated in and their costs, benefits, and ethical implications.
The next day, we left for a three-day camping trip in Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks. It was the dry season, and the weather was hot, dry, and sunny. We went hiking and snorkeling (in croc-free swimming holes), saw the breathtaking magnetic and cathedral termite mounds, and learned about geology and Aboriginal cultures. Some of the places we visited were sacred sites of the people who have inhabited the region for more than 65,000 years. One of the rock art paintings we were able to see was of a Tasmanian tiger, an animal that’s been completely extinct for close to a century and extinct in the Kakadu region for thousands of years. But right there on the wall was the preserved memory of a time when Tasmanian tigers still roamed the area.
One of the coolest places we stopped was a rock cut-out along a highway. The stone was striped with zigzagging layers created when it was buried underground at a pressure high enough to fold solid rock. It was formed 1.9 billion years ago, when the earth was “a geologist’s dream,” according to Glass–relatively barren, with no soil, plants, or animals, just microscopic organisms and lots and lots of rock. I was touching 1.9 billion years of history.
We spent the third night at a different campsite. Some of us spotted what seemed to be a large spider in the bathroom, but one of the tour guides informed me that it was actually just the shed skin of a huntsman spider, not the spider itself. I walked around camp introducing people to my “little friend,” but oddly enough, they didn’t seem as delighted as I was.
That night, while we were theoretically sleeping, periodic cacophonies of eerie, wailing screams reverberated through the air. My half-asleep brain was convinced they were from wallabies, but the sound actually came from a bird called the bush stone-curlew or bush thick-knee. The next morning, there was a gecko in the bathroom, and I wasn’t sure my day could possibly get any better. But later that day, we visited a fragment of an ancient rainforest, and there were giant fruit bats practically dripping from the canopy and giant golden orb weaver spider webs strung between trees, and I think that was even better than the bathroom gecko.
After departing Darwin, we headed to Cape Tribulation, where the Great Barrier Reef meets the Daintree Rainforest—believed to be the oldest rainforest on the planet. Some rainforests, Glass explained, exist because they’re near the equator. But the rainforests in Australia are remnants of ancient rainforests that developed when the continents were arranged very differently and Australia was considerably farther south. Australia’s climate has become more arid over time, but pockets of its ancient rainforests remain intact.
While we were on Cape Tribulation, we had the chance to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef. It was overcast and very windy that day, and the small boat that took us out to the reef turned into a rollercoaster as it slid up and down waves. But windy or not, the reef was gorgeous. We saw sea turtles, a sea cucumber, a small shark, and fishes and corals in endless colors.
We also had the incredible opportunity to hike through the rainforest at night. Of all the amazing things we did, that may have been my favorite. There were huge crickets and spiders, thorny vines called wait-a-whiles (because you’ll be waiting a while if you get stuck on one), and flowering plants that looked like mushrooms. And partway along the boardwalk, Glass spotted a creature so unusual and elusive that he had never seen one before. This, he told us, was probably the rarest animal we’d seen on the whole trip. A velvet worm. It looked a bit like a caterpillar or a centipede at first glance, but velvet worms have an entire phylum all their own. (Caterpillars and centipedes share the Arthropoda phylum, along with all insects, spiders, crustaceans, and various others. Velvet worms are in the Onychophora phylum.) The ancestors of velvet worms are thought to represent a link between arthropods and segmented worms. They are ancient, unique, and rarely seen.
Just moments later, Glass announced another incredible find: a peppermint stick. I raced ahead to see it. Earlier that day, I’d seen signs about peppermint stick insects, which excrete a peppermint-scented liquid as a defense mechanism, and I’d been keeping my eyes peeled ever since. The creature had developed a sort of mythical status in my mind; I’d been fantasizing about seeing one but hadn’t actually expected to. But there it was, right in front of us, large and stick-like, its color a blue-green so bright that it almost seemed to glow.
In Yungaburra, our next-to-last stop, we saw enormous fig trees and gorgeous waterfalls. On our last morning, several of us left the motel around dawn and walked to a nearby trail along a river in search of the platypus and the tree kangaroo, an arboreal kangaroo species. We found both. It was a fitting almost-ending to our trip. Both platypuses and kangaroos seem so iconically Australian. The platypuses slipped in and out of the water, their dark bodies visible even in the low light. The tree kangaroo watched us silently from its perch above us and then slowly began to move elsewhere.
Before long, it was time to go home. We spent a couple days in Cairns first, where I saw a shiny, emerald green beetle and a tree positively full of squawking lorikeets. Even in the city, there were bright and beautiful animals. In places like the ones we visited, it is easy to find awe and wonder and beauty everywhere you look. But there are endless treasures here, too, fascinating and beautiful sights that we walk past every day, like the way spiderwebs turn silver in the sunlight, or the gray catbird that eats bright red magnolia fruits in the courtyard in front of my dorm window, or the tiny, bluish purple flowers on the Al Buehler Trail, soft and fuzzy and damp when I brushed my face against them. Duke in Australia was an unforgettable adventure. It was also a reminder to step out of the human bubble and immerse myself in the worlds of other living things—whether here or across the globe.
Amid fracturing arctic ice shelves, late September tempests, floods, droughts, jumping wildfires, a few decades of quick extinction and species blinking out like the quiet collapse of distant supernovae, our climate crisis has begun to displace humans en masse.
68.5 million people were forcibly displaced by climate change and disasters in 2017. By 2021, that number grew to 89.3 million people. In 2022, we reached 100 million.
In a series of articles for the San Francisco News entitled “The Harvest Gypsies,” John Steinbeck described the 1930s Dust Bowl migrants in California’s Central Valley, uprooted by drought and crumbling wheat, then later novelized in the American classic Grapes of Wrath.
Steinbeck wrote, “The new migrants from the dust bowl are here to stay. They are the best American stock, intelligent, resourceful; and, if given a chance, socially responsible. To attempt to force them into a peonage of starvation and intimidated despair will be unsuccessful. They can be citizens of the highest type, or they can be an army driven by suffering to take what they need. On their future treatment will depend the course they will be forced to take.”
Co-sponsored by Duke Center for International Development (DCID) and the Center on Modernity in Transition (COMIT), the lecture is part of the larger Rural Transformations speaker series, highlighting rural perspectives in the discourse around development. This objective embodies COMIT’s research as well as their cognizance of “modernity as an age of transition towards a future world society—one that will emerge not through the universalization of any existing way of life, but rather through the sustained, creative, and complexly interacting contributions of all the diverse cultures and peoples of the world.”
The Dust Bowl, McLeman pointed out, is a quintessential example of climate migration, conjuring Dorothea Lange’s depression-era photojournalism and 8th grade US history. More recently, this phenomenon has been exemplified by hurricanes Katrina, Ike, Harvey, Irma, Sandy, Ida, Hugo, Andrew, Ian, and Maria (just to name a few) with similar, though smaller scale effects.
As McLeman and Bermeo acknowledged, climate-catalyzed movement is highly dependent on complex interactions between environment, society, economy, and politics, including a myriad of non-ecological factors like “land tenure, social networks, [and] access to government programs.”
Their research on the demographic composition and rates of climate-migration answers a number of questions: who is disproportionately affected by climate change? Who is migrating? And who is participating in policy decisions?
December 2022, the Biden Administration announced a $135 million investment for relocation and adaptation planning for Native American tribes severely impacted by environmental crises, such as “coastal and riverine erosion, permafrost degradation, wildfire, flooding, food insecurity, sea level rise, hurricane impacts, potential levee failure and drought.”
In less than a lifetime, one such tribe, the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, witnessed nearly their entire island sink into swampy silt.
On their tribal website, they write: “For our Island people, [Isle de Jean Charles] is more than simply a place to live. It is the epicenter of our Tribe and traditions. It is where our ancestors survived after being displaced by Indian Removal Act-era policies and where we cultivated what has become a unique part of Louisiana culture.
Today, the land that has sustained us for generations is vanishing before our eyes.”
Climate migration in America, however, is not contained within and between states. In the past decade alone, Bermeo’s research points to a significant increase in migration from Central America to the US as well as novel patterns of family unit migration to the southern border (as opposed to a predominantly individual, male demographic in previous years). She attributes two recent droughts to this out-migration, disproportionately displacing rural communities whose livelihoods are integrally tied to subsistence farming and year-to-year crop yield.
“People leave their homes because of climate but leave their countries for other reasons,” Bermeo explained. A large percentage of climate-migration is “inter-state,” i.e. a rural coastal community is forced to move inland (but still within their country) because of dangerous erosion.
In Central America, however, there is a distinct relationship between the incidence of drought and violence. Environmental stress has catalyzed a mass exodus from rural areas, increasing urbanization, yet these cities (particularly those in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador) often rank globally among the most violent, based on year-to-year per capita homicide rates.
With high levels of urban corruption and gang affiliation, it is often difficult for rural “outsiders” to find employment in the cities, leaving them unable to compensate economically for a season of crop failure. This conflict is further exacerbated by large proportions of young workers in these populations.
Despite deep-seated political polarization, climate-migration is adaptive.
McLeman described migration generally as “neither good nor bad… something that people sometimes do and always have done… [But] in North America, we lose sight of the fact that it is normal human behavior… it’s the circumstances under which it occurs that creates the challenges.”
When migration is voluntary, when people have access to social safety nets, are able to remit money to their families back home, and to mobilize legally across borders, migration is beneficial for the migrant, the migrant’s family, and the receiving community (which often benefits by filling labor demands). Often, the ramifications of immigration portrayed in the media (crime, destitution, etc.) are exacerbated by the lack of legality, social networks, and “gray markets.”
Bermeo acknowledged that the most effective mechanisms of decreasing undocumented migration are those that increase legal pathways. Historically, when the US has increased the number of visas allocated to Central American immigrants, illegal immigration subsequently decreased.
The panelists agreed: in order for both the migrating and receiving communities to benefit, we must prioritize the dignity of migrating individuals.
Though conversations surrounding climate change feel threateningly existential, Bermeo and McLeman described ways in which climate adaptation can be manageable. When migrants and rural communities are excluded from conversations and subsequent policy-making, not only do they benefit less from the proposed and funded interventions, but other communities (perhaps at less imminent risk from climate change) will still suffer from this missing insight.
Here, I return to the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation. Despite the appearance of a successful relocation project, the tribal council released a press statement in 2022, condemning the state of Louisiana. Elder Chief Albert Naquin spoke on the issue:
“If you believe that the resettlement of Isle de Jean Charles was successful, you’re headed in the wrong direction.” The memo added that, “Moving people while trampling upon our Tribe’s inherent sovereignty and rights to self-determination and cultural survival must not be viewed as a ‘success’ for future public climate adaptation investments.”
The mass movement of climate-migrants, from Indigenous to rural communities, represents a loss of autonomy, of land integral to identity, and often of home.
Still, Schewel’s Rural Transformation project advocates for the prioritization of these communities, rejecting the notion of passive policy-making and, instead, endorsing their active participation. Her project is indicative of how we must approach climate change adaptation: with empathy, education, and inclusion.
In a conversation with DCID, Schewel put it best: “[R]ural places are often treated as an afterthought… Some of the most promising advances in sustainable and equitable development are taking place in rural contexts, where a diversity of actors are striving to transform food systems, incorporate local knowledge, strengthen climate resilience, and widen participation in the development process.”
The DCID article ends with key insights from Schewel that encompass the Climate Change, Adaptation and Migration discussion and bear repetition: “As more focus is going towards migration, this is a project that will take very seriously the constraints on rural livelihoods and the motivations of migrants who leave rural places, while offering forward-looking solutions to advance our understanding of what it would mean to build more sustainable and flourishing rural futures.”
On a bright Sunday afternoon in April, I did something I had never done before. I went for a walk in the woods specifically to look for mosses. No, that’s not strictly true — we were looking for bryophytes. I learned, among other things, that not everything I had always called moss was really moss at all. (The word bryophyte comes from ancient Greek components and literally means “moss plant.”)
Bryophytes (which include mosses, liverworts, and hornworts) represent one of several large groups of terrestrial plants. Other groups include angiosperms (flowering plants), gymnosperms (cone-producing plants like conifers and ginkgos), pteridophytes (vascular, spore-producing plants including ferns and horsetails), and lycophytes (an ancient group with about 1200 surviving members). According to Shaw, bryophytes are “the second biggest group after the flowering plants, but the flowering plants are an order of magnitude more diverse.” Aguero says that North Carolina has 462 moss species, 211 liverworts, and 7 hornworts.
Unlike the other terrestrial plant groups, bryophytes are nonvascular, meaning they lack the water transport tissues that other plants use. Without vascular tissue and without lignin for support, bryophytes can’t grow very big because they have no way to efficiently move water from their base to the rest of the plant. Instead, they grow close to the ground and absorb water directly from the environment into their cells.
Despite their preference for damp habitats, bryophytes can live for a long time without water. Some plants (like cacti) survive droughts by storing water, but bryophytes have a different strategy. They go into a state of dormancy, or suspended animation, and simply wait. Then, when it next rains, “they go hog-wild, photosynthesizing again in minutes,” Shaw says.
So if bryophytes don’t rely on constant moisture to survive, why do they like it so wet? Water, as it turns out, isn’t just important for hydration. Bryophytes rely on it to reproduce as well.
“Mosses are the amphibia of the plant communities,” Shaw says. Just as many amphibians can live on land but must return to the water to reproduce, bryophyte sperm has to “swim” to an egg cell to fertilize it. Therefore, they need water in order to reproduce, but they don’t need much. It could be mist from a splashing waterfall or a puddle in the woods or rainwater trickling down a tree. It could even be dew.
The day was warm and sunny, but the ground was dotted with puddles from recent storms. Armed with small hand lenses, we set off down the trail, stopping periodically to scrutinize tree bark, fallen logs, and thick patches of moss on the forest floor.
You need not travel far to find bryophytes. Mosses and their cousins colonize all sorts of hidden nooks: damp logs, trailside divots, tree bark, riverbanks, forgotten corners of backyards. Compared to seed-producing plants, bryophytes tend to have larger geographic ranges, perhaps in part because spores disperse more easily and because bryophytes can survive dry spells. Shaw estimates that about 75% of the moss species found in North Carolina are also found in Europe, and some of them are found in Asia as well.
We learned that most mosses have a midrib in the middle of each leaf, whereas liverworts have no midrib.
“A liverwort,” Shaw explains helpfully, “is like a moss, but it’s a liverwort.”
Liverworts are relatively flat in comparison to mosses because their leaves are in two parallel rows, whereas mosses tend to have a more spiral shape, with leaves emerging from all sides of the stem. The flat appearance of liverworts explains why they are sometimes called scale mosses. Another feature to consider if you’re trying to distinguish mosses and liverworts is the presence of lobed leaves, or leaves with protuberances off the main leaf (think of maple or oak leaves, for example). Some liverworts (but not all) have lobed leaves, but no mosses do.
Aguero and Shaw both point out that the features we use to visually distinguish bryophytes aren’t necessarily the same features that officially set mosses and liverworts apart. The main difference between mosses and liverworts involves differences between their sporophytes.
“It’s not true that if you’ve seen one moss, you’ve seen them all,” Shaw says. They’re small, yes, but they are not all the same.
We looked at one particularly lush patch of moss in the Bryoandersonia genus, named after a Duke professor. If you’re trying to identify trees, Shaw says, you might start with features like whether the leaves are broad or narrow and whether the tree is shrubby or not. With mosses, on the other hand, one of the first questions to ask is whether it’s pleurocarpous or acrocarpous. Pleurocarpous mosses, such as the Bryoandersonia we looked at, tend to have highly branching stems and grow in sprawling patches. The stems of acrocarpous mosses, meanwhile, have little or no branching and grow mostly vertically, often forming tight clumps.
After learning about patches of Frullania liverworts on trees from Aguero, we examined a large clump of liverworts growing beside a stream. Unlike the other liverworts we’d seen, this was a type of thallose liverwort, set apart from so-called leafy liverworts by the presence of thallus (a ribbon-like structure) instead of leaves. We also had the chance to smell it. Interestingly, liverworts also have a distinctive smell, sharp and earthy. The scent can be so strong that you might sometimes smell liverworts before you see them.
According to Shaw, the term liverwort dates back to when botany and herbal medicine were considered largely the same. The so-called Doctrine of Signatures is the long-held idea that plants’ physical features reveal their medicinal uses. Thallose liverworts were thought to resemble livers and were used to treat ailments of the liver, hence the name. Similarly, the walnut looks rather like a brain and was used to treat mental illness, while the Dutchman’s breeches flower (the white flowers are said to resemble pants) was used for sexually transmitted diseases.
Aguero says that some liverworts do contain chemicals with antimicrobial properties, but she advises people not to eat liverworts.
Near the end of our walk, we found something we’d been keeping an eye out for but hadn’t yet seen: moss sporophytes. Bryophytes have a unique life cycle. Most of the time when we see a plant or an animal, it is diploid, meaning each cell contains two full sets of chromosomes (one from each parent). Every human cell, for instance, contains 46 chromosomes—with the exception of female egg and male sperm cells, which contain only 23. Cells that have only one set of chromosomes (like human egg and sperm cells) are called haploid. Plants undergo alternation of generations, meaning that one phase in their life cycle is haploid and one is diploid. In the case of most plants, the dominant and most conspicuous part of the life cycle is the diploid phase, but bryophytes are different. The fuzzy green carpets of moss we see are made of haploid cells, while the diploid phase is short-lived and only appears during reproduction. In mosses, the diploid phase (also known as the sporophyte) resembles thin filaments emerging from the haploid bed of moss. These sporophytes release spores (the spores are haploid) that grow into the next generation of moss.
“I wish we could be like the moss spores and let the wind carry us,” said Kavya Menke, one of the undergraduates on the walk. “Cheaper than Uber.”
Occasionally, I paused my own bryophyte observations to watch others watching bryophytes. I found myself wondering if people are similarly bemused when they see me standing in a swamp with binoculars or crouching down on the way to class to move an earthworm off the sidewalk. I am accustomed to the world of birding, and looking for creatures like dragonflies, snakes, and salamanders feels natural to me as well. But this was a delightful opportunity to enter a world in which I had little to no experience: the shady, damp world of the bryophytes.
If you make a habit of going on walks with birders, you may spend a lot of time waking up before dawn, craning your neck upward, and straining to hear the alleged differences between a dozen kinds of short chirps. If you go out looking for snakes, you might spend a warm afternoon flipping over sun-warmed boards and scanning rocks and other basking spots. Searching for salamanders will likely involve scrutinizing wet soil, leaf litter, and ponds in early spring, possibly on a dark and rainy night. But searching for bryophytes is an experience all its own.
For one thing, you can go at any time of day and be equally successful, seeing as bryophytes neither crawl nor slither nor fly. You can also feel free to move as slowly as you wish. Aguero compares bryologists to lichenologists: “Moss people and lichen people work together frequently,” she says. “We walk similarly slowly.”
You could walk the same trail a hundred times and see it a hundred different ways. You could focus on birds or earthworms or snakes, wildflowers or changing leaves, clouds or trees or rocks. The next time you are in the mood to explore a new world, consider taking a walk — either somewhere new or a path you’ve walked a hundred times before — and turning your attention to the wonderful world of the bryophytes. Pet the moss. Feel its springiness and dampness and softness. Run your fingers lightly over the thin sporophyte stalks and notice how they tickle your palm. Smell the liverworts. See the dark patches of Frullania on a tree trunk. Bryophytes are nearly everywhere. Look for them. Look at them. See them.
Geer Cemetary in Durham is one of many burial grounds in America that hold the remains of thousands of Black Americans from the 19th century. There are no records of the people buried there. The process of researching grounds like these as a form of reparations to descendent communities was pioneered by Michael Blakey in the African Burial Ground Project in Lower Manhattan, New York. He is currently the Director of the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William and Mary.
On April 4, Blakey visited Duke as a guest of the Franklin Institute of Humanities, the Department of Classical Studies, the Department of International Comparative Studies, and Trinity College. In attendance to his lecture were students of Classical Studies 144: Principles of Archaeology with Alicia Jimenez, International Comparative Studies 283: Death, Burial, and Justice in the Americas with Adam Rosenblatt, and several graduate students by invitation (and me). His presence was clearly highly anticipated.
I initially approached Dr. Jimenez with my interest in bioarchaeology in January as I was planning my Program II application. She invited me to this seminar, and to lunch with Blakey and the graduate students beforehand. I came prepped with questions on osteopenia and hypertrophy, as well as a map of Brightleaf Square so I wouldn’t get lost (I still got lost) and a few dollars cash for parking (they only took card).
For those of you who have ever loved the detective fiction heroine Temperance Brennan, Blakey’s work is for you. He is co-chair of the Commission for the Ethical Treatment of Human Remains through the American Anthropological Association. He was claiming the title of bioanthropologist before it was cool. He wrote a guide for the profession called Engaging Descendant Communities, or, more lovingly, The Rubric. Blakey encourages allowing those descendant communities to guide scientists’ research on human remains. He calls us Homo reminiscens, because what makes us “human” may be our affinity for memorializing our dead as much as it may be our large brains (á la Homo sapiens). “Burial is human dignity,” Blakey announced during the seminar, “Dignity is what we do.”
“Ethical code is not law. It is our greatest responsibility.”
After all, science has historically been used to justify the unjust. Bioarchaeology is a famous contributor to the field; the pseudoscience of phrenology was upheld until well into the 20th century, and was originally used as “scientific proof” that people of African descent were lesser than Europeans. It was also cited as a justification for displacing Native Americans from their lands.
During lunch, I was struck by Blakey’s cadence. He had a deep, slow voice and spoke with intention. He ordered the giant pretzel. I never asked my questions; instead, I was swept away by the group’s discussion on ethics–a topic I had no open Safari tabs on. I asked instead why a scientist would choose to guide themselves entirely by a non-expert opinion rather than scientific inquiry; would that not hinder discovery?
The scientific method, as you may recall, starts with asking a question. Rather than gracefully including descendent communities after the paper has been written, Blakey urges scientists to only pursue questions about remains that the descendants wish to answer. The science of death should never be self-serving, he noted. There is no purpose to publishing a paper if it is not in the service of the community that provided the subject. A critical reader may notice that The Rubric is not called The Gospel or The Constitution. Rather than a rule of law, it is a guideline. That’s because ethics is based on the respect of self, of craft, and of others. “Ethical code is not law,” Blakey reminds scientists. “It is our greatest responsibility.”
Geer Cemetary has been the subject of Duke research for years now, from a Story+ program to class field trips. Members of ICS, CLST, and FHHI have been in cooperation with Friends of Geer Cemetary to answer such questions about burial conditions–the attempt at dignity granted to Black residents of Durham by their descendants.
Edit: a previous version of this article had incorrectly stated that the Department of African and African American Studies sponsored Michael Blakey’s lecture.
If you check one box, it feels like you deny your identity as another. It is a constant battle of representation, of feeling a responsibility towards all of your communities while simultaneously feeling an imposter in all of them. There is always the issue of being too white for one group, too brown for another.
Since 2012, every county in the United States has reported a multiracial population. Dr. Sarah Gaither, an assistant professor of psychology & neuroscience at Duke, studies the identity crisis multiracial students face. In 2015, she published “‘Mixed’ Results: Multiracial Research and Identity Explorations” in Current Directions in Psychological Science. And on February 10, she organized a screening of MIXED, a documentary following the struggles and backlash facing mixed-race families. The film’s directors, Caty Borum and Leena Jayaswal of American University, joined the screening and provided a Q&A session for the audience.
Gaither’s research is featured in the film, as well as Duke SWIRL (Students With Interracial Legacies), a former student organization.
“Multiracials who identify as multiracial actually experience decreased self-esteem when asked to choose only one racial identity,” Gaither notes in her article. Sure enough, the documentary follows America’s slow response to progress. Despite being in the aftermath of our first biracial president, despite it being over 50 years since Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage nationwide, there have only been two U.S. Censuses taken since the Census Bureau allowed more than one race to be checked on official forms. This caused a notable shift; between 2000 and 2010, the number of reported interracial people increased by 32%, likely because of the ability to “claim more than one race” as a legal identity.
Gaither’s research in the Duke Identity and Diversity Lab pledges to continue this research. She notes interesting extensions of multiracial identities, such as Latinx students and families who are subject to even more confusing checkboxes on aforementioned Google forms (What is your race and ethnicity? Because “Hispanic/Latino” is its own category).
“The process of racial self-identification can be more challenging as racial categories can be complex and/or ambiguous,” Gaither says. She also notes the identity crises genderqueer people face, and how restricting checkboxes can really be.
The documentary provides the viewer an opportunity to experience the inequities and bigotries that still exist toward multiracial families. Race, after all, is genetically irrelevant. The documentary team gives examples of questions they are often asked:
“Are you the nanny?” “What is she?” “Did you adopt those children?” “Where did they come from?”
And I’ll add a few more, from experience:
“It’ll be two separate checks today?” “Where do you get that hair from?” “Is this your aunt?”
The point is: racial divides are projected by outsiders onto mixed families, and it creates a crisis of identity for mixed-race individuals. It is a phenomenon well documented by Gaither, Borum, Jayaswal, and others who have lived it.
The Kenan Institute of Ethics recently held a conversation to discuss exactly that issue. The discussion was moderated by Jesse Summers, Ph.D., and featured speakers Erich Hatala Matthes, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wellesley College and author of “Drawing the Line: what to do with the work of immoral artists from museums to the movies,” and Tom Rankin, Professor of the Practice of Art and Documentary Studies and Director of the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke University.
Matthes believes that in some cases, “to not engage with the moral dimensions of a work would be to not take the work seriously.” He thinks Shakespeare’s works belong in this category. “Trickier cases,” he adds, “might come from works that aren’t explicitly engaged” with morality, but even in those cases, “the moral life of the artist can actually become a lens through which to read aspects of the work.”
We already consider context when viewing art, not just “formal features of the work.” What was the artist responding to? What were the politics at the time? Matthes believes it makes sense to consider the “moral life” of the artist, too. That “doesn’t mean the artist’s moral life is always going to be relevant” to engaging with the art, but he thinks it’s worth at least acknowledging.
According to Rankin, “When we look at a piece of art or hear something, what we hope is that it propels us” to consider moral issues. How, he asks, can we not look at a painting or photo and wonder, “Where did this come from? Who made it? What was their agenda? What is their point of view? What was their background?”
So where does that leave us, Rankin asks, when it comes to “work that was made a hundred years ago but is really powerful… and yet when we look at it a hundred years later it has all kinds of flaws?” Should museums remove paintings by famous artists if racist or sexist views come to light? Should individuals boycott books, songs, and video games created (or inspired) by artists who have made harmful statements toward individuals or groups of people? How should college classes address works by immoral artists?
Matthes says the term “immoral artists” in his book is intentionally provocative. “I don’t actually think it’s productive” to think of people as good or bad, moral or immoral, he says. “There’s a huge range” in the morality or lack thereof in artists’ actions, and Matthes believes there should also be a range in our responses, but he doesn’t believe that “great art can ever just excuse immorality.” He wants to reject the idea that “artists need to be a little inhuman” and “outside the norms of society.” He thinks that mindset encourages us to think of artists as not subject to the same rules. They should not be “immune to moral criticism,” he says.
Rankin agrees: “I do balk a little bit at having to be the one to decide who’s bad and who’s good,” but at the same time, he believes that “artists make work in response to who they are.” So “What do we confront first? The life of the artist or the work itself? It’s not one or the other,” he says.
Both speakers believe that context is often key to interpreting and evaluating art. Matthes says that it might be “really obscene” to choose Michael Jackson music at your wedding if you know one of your guests has experienced child abuse, given the child sexual assault allegations against Jackson. However, Matthes doesn’t believe that completely “cancelling” Jackson’s music is the solution, either.
Similarly, Matthes doesn’t believe that “we should necessarily continue with big exhibitions honoring Paul Gauguin,” a painter who had sexual relationships with young girls and employed racist terminology. According to Matthes, Gauguin “represents a paternalistic energy of a particular time” that we should “interrogate.” As for the notion that we should extend a degree of lenience to historical artists and view them as a product of their times, Matthes is “disinclined” to think of morality as relative to time period. The time when a work of art was created might affect how we engage with it or assign blame, but “Gauguin did a lot of morally horrific things, and the fact that it was in a different time and place doesn’t change that.”
Nevertheless, Matthes thinks we can and should still engage with and respond to the work of “immoral artists.” His concern, he says, is that taking art off of walls and bookshelves and not talking about it “isn’t reckoning with the legacy.” He also doesn’t “see a reason to put certain types of art on a pedestal and treat them differently…. Artistic expression is a fundamental part of human life.”
What if an individual doesn’t want to engage with such art at all? What if the actions of an artist, dead or alive, are so objectionable to someone that they want nothing to do with it? Matthes is okay with that attitude, though he does think it’s “missing an opportunity.”
Completely disengaging from art on account of its creator’s moral life “feels like a way of not taking the moral criticism seriously,” Matthes says. “It’s not something you would be wrong to fail to do,” but he believes in engaging with moral issues, even those that “it would be easier to just ignore.”
But he acknowledges that personal identities can play a role in how or whether we engage with the work of immoral artists. Matthes believes it’s important to consider “the position you’re coming from” when you read or think about these issues. On the other hand, people and groups who may be more directly impacted by an artist’s problematic views “also have really thoughtful, nuanced ways” of engaging—or not engaging—with the art.
Matthes believes that “we have a lot of moral latitude when it comes to our individual engagement” with art. He finds it difficult to make the argument that reading, listening to, or viewing art in your own home is directly harmful to others, even if the artist in question is still alive.
Summers, meanwhile, points out that if someone is upset by an artist, there could be cases where “you’re taking it out on your friends… when you should be taking it out on the band.”
Institutions like universities, however, might need to take further considerations. “Different moral norms might apply,” Matthes suggests, “based on the positions of power we occupy.” Classrooms, for instance, are a “semi-public” space. They can help provide context in conversations about “morally problematic art” and encourage people to “think really carefully and critically.” If a class is going to engage with such topics, though, Matthes thinks it’s important to spell that out to students beforehand.
Powerful conversations can take place outside of classrooms, too — in book clubs and even informal conversations with friends. “You don’t want to let the moral concerns completely drive the bus” when engaging with art, Matthes says, “but I think it’s important not to ignore them.”
Rankin concludes by reminding us that it isn’t just artists who face decisions about how to respond to the world. For instance, even among those who don’t think of themselves as photographers, anyone who carries a cell phone is making choices every time they take a photo — about what they’re presenting and why.