Duke Research Blog

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

Category: Field Research (Page 1 of 10)

Detangling Stigma and Mental Illness

Can you imagine a world without stigma? Where a diagnosis of autism or schizophrenia didn’t inevitably stick people with permanent labels of “handicap,” “abnormal,” “disturbed,” or “dependent”?

Roy Richard Grinker can. In fact, he thinks we’re on the way to one.

It’s a subject he’s studied and lectured on extensively—stigmas surrounding mental health conditions, that is. His expertise, influence, and unique insight in the field led him to April 12, where he was the distinguished speaker of an annual lecture commemorating Autism Awareness Month. The event was co-sponsored by the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, and the Department of Cultural Anthropology.

Roy Richard Grinker was the invited speaker to this year’s annual Autism Awareness Month commemorative lecture. Photo credit: Duke Institute for Brain Sciences

Grinker’s credentials speak to his expertise. He is a professor of Anthropology, International Affairs, and Human Sciences at George Washington University; he has authored five books, several New York Times op-eds, and a soon-to-be-published 600-page volume on the anthropology of Africa; he studied in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a Fulbright scholar in his early career; and, in the words of Geraldine Dawson, director of the Center for Autism and Brain Development, “he fundamentally changed the way we think about autism.”

Grinker began with an anecdote about his daughter, who is 26 years old and “uses the word ‘autism’ to describe herself—not just her identity, but her skills.”

She likes to do jigsaw puzzles, he said, but in a particular fashion: with the pieces face-down so their shape is the only feature she can use to assemble them, always inexplicably leaving one piece out at the end. He described this as one way she embraces her difference, and a metaphor for her understanding that “there’s always a piece missing for all of us.”

Grinker and Geraldine Dawson, director of the Center for Autism and Brain Development, pose outside Love Auditorium in the minutes before his talk. Source: Duke Institute for Brain Sciences

“What historical and cultural conditions made it possible for people like Isabel to celebrate forms of difference that were a mark of shame only a few decades ago?” Grinker asked.  “To embrace the idea that mental illnesses are an essential feature of what it means to be human?”

He identified three processes as drivers of what he described as the “pivotal historical moment” of the decoupling of stigma and mental illness: high-profile figures, from celebrity talk-show hosts to the Pope, speaking up about their mental illnesses instead of hiding them; a shift from boxing identities into racial, spiritual, gender, and other categories to placing them on a spectrum; and economies learning to appreciate the unique skills of people with mental illness.

This development in the de-stigmatization of mental illness is recent, but so is stigma itself. Grinker explained how the words “normal” and “abnormal” didn’t enter the English vocabulary until the mid-19th century—the idea of “mental illness” had yet to make its debut.

“There have always been people who suffer from chronic sadness or had wildly swinging moods, who stopped eating to the point of starvation, who were addicted to alcohol, or only spoke to themselves.” Grinker said. “But only recently have such behaviors defined a person entirely. Only recently did a person addicted to alcohol become an alcoholic.”

Grinker then traced the development of mental illness as an idea through modern European and American history. He touched on how American slaveowners ascribed mental illness to African Americans as justification for slavery, how hysteria evolved into a feminized disease whose diagnoses became a classist tool after World War I, and how homosexuality was gradually removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) by secretly gay psychiatrists who worked their way up the rankings of the American Psychiatric Association in the 1960s and 70s.

Source: Duke Institute for Brain Sciences

Next, Grinker described his anthropological research around the world on perceptions of mental illness, from urban South Korea to American Indian tribes to rural villages in the Kalahari Desert. His findings were wide-ranging and eye-opening: while, at the time of Grinker’s research, Koreans viewed mental illness of any kind as a disgrace to one’s heritage, members of Kalahari Desert communities showed no shame in openly discussing their afflictions. Grinker told of one man who spoke unabashedly of his monthly 24-mile walk to the main village for antipsychotic drugs, without which, as was common knowledge among the other villagers, he would hear voices in his head urging him to kill them. Yet, by Grinker’s account, they didn’t see him as ill — “a man who never hallucinates because he takes his medicine is not crazy.”

I could never do justice to Grinker’s presentation without surpassing an already-strained word limit on this post. Suffice it to say, the talk was full of interesting social commentary, colorful insights into the history of mental illness, and words of encouragement for the future of society’s place for diversity in mental health. Grinker concluded on such a note:

“Stigma decreases when a condition affects us all, when we all exist on a spectrum,” Grinker said. “We see this in the shift away from the categorical to the spectral dimension. Regardless, we might need the differences of neurodiversity to make us, humans, interesting, vital, and innovative.”

Post by Maya Iskandarani

How a Museum Became a Lab

Encountering and creating art may be some of mankind’s most complex experiences. Art, not just visual but also dancing and singing, requires the brain to understand an object or performance presented to it and then to associate it with memories, facts, and emotions.

A piece in Dario Robleto’s exhibit titled “The Heart’s Knowledge Will Decay” (2014)

In an ongoing experiment, Jose “Pepe” Contreras-Vidal and his team set up in artist Dario Robleto’s exhibit “The Boundary of Life Is Quietly Crossed” at the Menil Collection near downtown Houston. They then asked visitors if they were willing to have their trips through the museum and their brain activities recorded. Robleto’s work was displayed from August 16, 2014 to January 4, 2015. By engaging museum visitors, Contreras-Vidal and Robleto gathered brain activity data while also educating the public, combining research and outreach.

“We need to collect data in a more natural way, beyond the lab” explained Contreras-Vidal, an engineering professor at the University of Houston, during a talk with Robleto sponsored by the Nasher Museum.

More than 3,000 people have participated in this experiment, and the number is growing.

To measure brain activity, the volunteers wear EEG caps which record the electrical impulses that the brain uses for communication. EEG caps are noninvasive because they are just pulled onto the head like swim caps. The caps allow the museum goers to move around freely so Contreras-Vidal can record their natural movements and interactions.

By watching individuals interact with art, Contreras-Vidal and his team can find patterns between their experiences and their brain activity. They also asked the volunteers to reflect on their visit, adding a first person perspective to the experiment. These three sources of data showed them what a young girl’s favorite painting was, how she moved and expressed her reaction to this painting, and how her brain activity reflected this opinion and reaction.

The volunteers can also watch the recordings of their brain signals, giving them an opportunity to ask questions and engage with the science community. For most participants, this is the first time they’ve seen recordings of their brain’s electrical signals. In one trip, these individuals learned about art, science, and how the two can interact. Throughout this entire process, every member of the audience forms a unique opinion and learns something about both the world and themselves as they interact with and make art.

Children with EEG caps explore art.

Contreras-Vidal is especially interested in the gestures people make when exposed to the various stimuli in a museum and hopes to apply this information to robotics. In the future, he wants someone with a robotic arm to not only be able to grab a cup but also to be able to caress it, grip it, or snatch it. For example, you probably can tell if your mom or your best friend is approaching you by their footsteps. Contreras-Vidal wants to restore this level of individuality to people who have prosthetics.

Contreras-Vidal thinks science can benefit art just as much as art can benefit science. Both he and Robleto hope that their research can reduce many artists’ distrust of science and help advance both fields through collaboration.

Post by Lydia Goff

To Frack or Not to Frack

We’ve all heard about fracking, and some of us may even claim to understand it. Politicians on both ends of the spectrum certainly do, with some touting the oil and gas drilling technology as the savior of the U.S. energy industry and others decrying it as the harbinger of doom for the planet.

Duke alumnus Daniel Raimi, in his new book The Fracking Debate: The Risks, Benefits, and Uncertainties of the Shale Revolution, hopes to show people the gray area that lies in between.

Image credit to Daniel Raimi.

At a talk last week co-sponsored by the Duke Energy Initiative and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Raimi shared some of the insights he gained in traveling the country to investigate the community-level impact of the shale revolution in the U.S. Raimi, a Durham native and 2012 graduate of the Sanford School of Public Policy, first made sure to explain that “fracking” and “the shale revolution” aren’t actually interchangeable terms.

“Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping water, sand and chemicals underground to stimulate production from an oil or gas well,” Raimi said. “Companies have been stimulating oil and gas wells since the 1950s, but it’s been applied at an extremely large scale recently and combined with other technologies like horizontal drilling.”

The shale revolution, which began in the early 2010s, has caused U.S. natural gas

U.S crude oil production from 1950 to 2015. Image credit to Daniel Raimi.

and crude oil production to explode — reaching an all-time high of 10 million barrels per day in the last few months.

With this in mind, Raimi began his investigative journey in Marcellus Shale, Pennsylvania, a place he’d read was booming with thousands of new wells and where he expected to encounter trucks, oil rigs and an influx of eager workers from other states reminiscent of the California Gold Rush. Instead, he found rolling green hills and untouched corn fields.

The township of Dimock, Pennsylvania. Image credit to Daniel Raimi.

Even more puzzling was his later discovery that residents of a local township, Dimock, were pining for drilling to return after the Pennsylvania Department for Environmental Protection discovered contamination of the town’s water supply by stray gas leaking from underground wells and promptly banned any shale drilling within a nine-mile radius of the site.

Heading south to the Permian Basin in West Texas, a leading region for oil production in the U.S. where, according to Raimi, “there are oil wells in people’s backyards and gas pipelines running through their lawns,” Raimi came across another incongruity. Though the community has long been supportive of the oil industry and its proposals for more drilling, he spoke to community members —including industry leaders in the shale movement — adamantly opposed to drilling

Balmorhea State Park in Texas. Image credit to Daniel Raimi.

in the pristine Balmorhea State Park, despite a company’s claim of having discovered an untapped oil reserve in the area.

In his last anecdote, Raimi highlighted perhaps the most contentious point in the shale debate: its ramifications for global climate change. In Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the U.S. (300 miles north of Arctic Circle, to be exact), he spoke to local government officials who described million-dollar plans for protective measures against accelerating coastal erosion. This community also depends on increasingly scarce permafrost to keep cold the whale meat they subsist on for most of the year. Nevertheless, they also yearned for a greater presence of the oil industry.

All this was food for thought for an attentive audience. Raimi accomplished the stated goal of his presentation: getting pro- or anti-fracking audience members to at least see the other side of the debate. He offered some conclusions from his research in his closing words:

“Shale development has been a clear climate win in the short term, although climate benefits in the long term are less clear,” Raimi said. “Regardless, the current low-cost supply for natural gas is window of opportunity for policy that policymakers need to take advantage of.”

Post by Maya Iskandarani

 

Meet Africa’s Bird Master of Vocal Imitation

The red-capped robin-chat (Cossypha natalensis) can mimic the songs and calls of dozens of other bird species – even their duets, says Duke researcher Tom Struhsaker.

The red-capped robin-chat (Cossypha natalensis) can mimic the songs and calls of dozens of other bird species – even their duets, says Duke researcher Tom Struhsaker.

Singing a duet in a foreign language isn’t just for opera stars — red-capped robin-chats do it too. These orange-brown birds with grey wings can imitate the sounds of 40 other bird species, even other species’ high-speed duets.

The latter finding comes from Tom Struhsaker, adjunct professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke. Struhsaker didn’t set out to study robin-chats. His interest in their vocal abilities developed while studying monkeys in Kibale Forest in Uganda, where he lived for nearly two decades from 1970 to 1988.

Their typical song “sounds like a long, rambling human-like whistle,” Struhsaker said. But during the 18 years he spent studying and living in Kibale, Struhsaker also heard these birds impersonate the tambourine-like courtship call of the crested guineafowl, the crow of a rooster, and the “puweepuweepuwee” of a crowned eagle, among others.

“The robin-chat’s ability to imitate is so good that many a bird watcher has looked skyward vainly searching for a crowned eagle performing its aerial display, when in fact the source of the eagle’s undulating whistle was a robin-chat in the nearby understory,” Struhsaker said.

He also noticed that if he whistled, eavesdropping robin-chats would approach and call back, and if he tweaked the pitch and sequence of notes in his whistle, the birds sometimes changed their reply.

This suggests red-capped robin-chats may be lifelong learners, unlike many other bird species that only learn songs during critical time windows, Struhsaker said.

But the robin-chat doesn’t stop at mimicking others’ solo performances. Notably, Struhsaker also heard them imitate the duet of the black-faced rufous warbler.

Black-faced rufous warblers sing a rapid-fire “seee-oooo-ee” duet with their mates. The two birds take turns such that the male sings the “seee,” the female chimes in with the “oooo” and the male fires back with the final “ee,” with no pauses between the three notes. The partners sing back and forth so seamlessly that they are often mistaken for a single bird.

“In order to do this, birds have an incredibly rapid reaction time, much greater than that of humans,” Struhsaker said.

On two occasions he heard single robin-chats sing both the male and female parts of the warbler duet by themselves. On another occasion he heard two robin-chats make music together as the warblers do, with one singing the male warbler’s part and the other singing the female part.

“This suggests these birds have an unusually high level of auditory perception and reaction time and cognitive ability,” Struhsaker said.

CITATION:  “Two Red-Capped Robin-Chats Cossypha Natalensis Imitate Antiphonal Duet of Black-Faced Rufous Warblers Bathmocercus rufus,” Thomas Struhsaker. Journal of East African Natural History, Dec. 2017. https://doi.org/10.2982/028.106.0201.

 

Kathleen Pryer: A Passion for the Little-Loved Fern

Most people don’t see in ferns the glory and grandeur of the mighty angiosperms — the flowering plants — but to those who can, ferns may seem like the only thing you could spend your time researching.

Fei-wei Li, Kathleen Pryer

Kathleen Pryer, with former graduate student Fei-Wei Li. (Duke photography)

Kathleen Pryer, a professor of biology at Duke, is an example of one of these people who found their calling in ferns. But she didn’t know it would be ferns from the beginning.

As an undergraduate, she had thought she wanted to be an animal behaviorist, having read books by Jane Goodall, so she enrolled in McGill University in Montreal (she’s Canadian by the way) in the animal behavior program and didn’t end up taking a single botany course until her senior year.  For her final project she worked with snails, a starkly slow endeavor, she thought. Slower even than ferns. After getting her degree in animal behavior, she decided she wanted a masters working with plants, but before jumping right in with only one class’ worth of experience with plants, she worked as a technician for a budding ecologist.  While working there, the ecologist’s wife, who did her masters on ferns, took her on a trip to the annual meeting of the botanical society of America in Blacksburg, VA, a 13-hour trip.

In Virginia, she went on a 2-day field trip through Virginia, led by fern expert Warren Wagner, finding ferns with 107 other people who were mad about ferns.

“It was just serendipity really.”

After that, the idea of ferns stuck, and she’s been working with them ever since.  She’s gotten the chance to name or rename many species of fern, and she created the genus Gaga, named after the singer.  Another new genus she found is soon to be named Mandela by her as well; a nice change from the usual names of “old white guys,” given to new genera, she said.

Through it all though, Pryer is most proud of a paper from 2001, which showed that all modern ferns originated from a central progenitor, showing that they aren’t as archaic as most people think. That paper made the cover of Nature, and has been cited hundreds of times since.

In the end, I guess it’s really hard to tell where you’ll end up.  If an aspiring animal behaviorist can jump to the world of ferns and make a successful career out of it, surely there’s hope for the rest of us too.  In the end, all that matters is if you’re doing what you love, and as for Kathleen Pryer, she’ll keep doing what she loves as long as there’s a “chair and a microscope” for her to sit at.

Isaac PoarchGuest Post by Isaac Poarch, a senior at the North Carolina School of Science and Math

Durham Traffic Data Reveal Clues to Safer Streets

Ghost bikes are a haunting site. The white-painted bicycles, often decorated with flowers or photographs, mark the locations where cyclists have been hit and killed on the street.

A white-painted bike next to a street.

A Ghost Bike located in Chapel Hill, NC.

Four of these memorials currently line the streets of Durham, and the statistics on non-fatal crashes in the community are equally sobering. According to data gathered by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, Durham county averaged 23 bicycle and 116 pedestrian crashes per year between 2011 and 2015.

But a team of Duke researchers say these grim crash data may also reveal clues for how to make Durham’s streets safer for bikers, walkers, and drivers.

This summer, a team of Duke students partnered with Durham’s Department of Transportation to analyze and map pedestrian, bicycle and motor vehicle crash data as part of the 10-week Data+ summer research program.

In the Ghost Bikes project, the team created an interactive website that allows users to explore how different factors such as the time-of-day, weather conditions, and sociodemographics affect crash risk. Insights from the data also allowed the team to develop policy recommendations for improving the safety of Durham’s streets.

“Ideally this could help make things safer, help people stay out of hospitals and save lives,” said Lauren Fox, a Duke cultural anthropology major who graduated this spring, and a member of the DATA+ Ghost Bikes team.

A map of Durham county with dots showing the locations of bicycle crashes

A heat map from the team’s interactive website shows areas with the highest density of bicycle crashes, overlaid with the locations of individual bicycle crashes.

The final analysis showed some surprising trends.

“For pedestrians the most common crash isn’t actually happening at intersections, it is happening at what is called mid-block crossings, which happen when someone is crossing in the middle of the road,” Fox said.

To mitigate the risks, the team’s Executive Summary includes recommendations to install crosswalks, median islands and bike lanes to roads with a high density of crashes.

They also found that males, who make up about two-thirds of bicycle commuters over the age of 16, are involved in 75% of bicycle crashes.

“We found that male cyclists over age 16 actually are hit at a statistically higher rate,” said Elizabeth Ratliff, a junior majoring in statistical science. “But we don’t know why. We don’t know if this is because males are riskier bikers, if it is because they are physically bigger objects to hit, or if it just happens to be a statistical coincidence of a very unlikely nature.”

To build their website, the team integrated more than 20 sets of crash data from a wide variety of different sources, including city, county, regional and state reports, and in an array of formats, from maps to Excel spreadsheets.

“They had to fit together many different data sources that don’t necessarily speak to each other,” said faculty advisor Harris Solomon, an associate professor of cultural anthropology and global health at Duke.  The Ghost Bikes project arose out of Solomon’s research on traffic accidents in India, supported by the National Science Foundation Cultural Anthropology Program.

In Solomon’s Spring 2017 anthropology and global health seminar, students explored the role of the ghost bikes as memorials in the Durham community. The Data+ team approached the same issues from a more quantitative angle, Solomon said.

“The bikes are a very concrete reminder that the data are about lives and deaths,” Solomon said. “By visiting the bikes, the team was able to think about the very human aspects of data work.”

“I was surprised to see how many stakeholders there are in biking,” Fox said. For example, she added, the simple act of adding a bike lane requires balancing the needs of bicyclists, nearby residents concerned with home values or parking spots, and buses or ambulances who require access to the road.

“I hadn’t seen policy work that closely in my classes, so it was interesting to see that there aren’t really simple solutions,” Fox said.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHIRqhdb7YQ&w=629&h=354]

 

Data+ is sponsored by Bass Connections, the Information Initiative at Duke, the Social Science Research Institute, the departments of Mathematics and Statistical Science and MEDx.

Other Duke sponsors include DTECH, Duke Health, Sanford School of Public Policy, Nicholas School of the Environment, Development and Alumni Affairs, Energy Initiative, Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, Office for Information Technology and the Office of the Provost, as well as the departments of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Computer Science, Biomedical Engineering, Biostatistics & Bioinformatics and Biology.

Government funding comes from the National Science Foundation. Outside funding comes from Accenture, Academic Analytics, Counter Tools and an anonymous donation.

Community partnerships, data and interesting problems come from the Durham Police Department, Durham Neighborhood Compass, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Duke Marine Lab, Center for Child and Family Policy, Northeast Ohio Medical University, TD Bank, Epsilon, Duke School of Nursing, University of Southern California, Durham Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, Duke Surgery, MyHealth Teams, North Carolina Museum of Art and Scholars@Duke.

Writing by Kara Manke; video by Lauren Mueller and Summer Dunsmore

A Summer Well-Spent In and Around Toxic Waste Sites

Edison, NJ is just 40 miles from Manhattan and 70 miles from Philadelphia. It’s also home to the US EPA’s Emergency Response Team (ERT), where I spent the summer as an intern.

Stella Wang and an EPA contractor used lifts to test oil being pumped out of these huge tanks. It was found to be contaminated with mercury, benzene and lead.

At the start of my internship, I had little idea of how ERT functioned. Unlike the 10 regional offices of the Environmental Protection Agency, ERT is a “headquarters” or Washington, DC-based group, which means it responds to incidents all over the country such as oil spills, train derailments, and natural disasters.

For example, my mentor, an air specialist who generally works from his cubicle in Edison, aided in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by employing equipment to analyze air for hazardous pollutants. Other ERT team members have conducted sediment sampling to expedite the hazardous waste removal process, given consultation advice to other EPA members for long-term remedial site work, and led the innovation of new technology.

I was able to shadow and help my mentor and fellow ERT members with their Superfund site removal work. I created accurate maps showing injection well locations, learned how to use air monitoring instruments, and helped perform chemical lab experiments that will be employed for future site analysis.

Perhaps my favorite part of the internship was traveling to a myriad of active sites. At these sites, I not only got to see how ERT members worked with EPA’s on-scene coordinators, but also observed the physical removal and remediation processes. I was fortunate to visit a particular site multiple times — I witnessed the removal of contaminated oil from an abandoned lot as the summer progressed.

Stella Wang (left) and an EPA air specialist calibrating a air monitoring instrument before a public event.

At another site, I saw the beginning of an injection process intended to prevent the contamination of underground drinking water by hexavalent chromium. By pumping sodium lactate into underground wells, the hexavalent is converted into the insoluble and benign chromium-3 ion. If the injection process works, the community will no longer be threatened by this particular hazardous material.

ERT also acts in anticipation of possible contamination to protect the public. At largely attended events like the Democratic National Convention, a few ERT members will arrive with monitoring equipment. They pride themselves in their real-time data collection for a reason: throughout the event, they can detect whether a contaminant has been released and immediately instigate an emergency response to protect attendees.

Thanks to various ERT members, I felt accepted and welcome. They were open and patient with my never-ending questions about their career paths and other things. They’ve graciously taken me out to lunch so that they could get to know me better, ensuring my inclusion in their small community.

Of course, the experiences I had this summer, while brief, have taught me a tremendous amount and I have a clearer sense of how this division of the US federal government functions. But, it would be inaccurate and unjust to omit the impact that its people made on me.

Stella Wang, Duke 2019Guest post by Stella Wang, Class of 2019

Science on the Trail

Duke launches free two-week girls science camp in Pisgah National Forest.

Duke launches free two-week girls science camp in Pisgah National Forest.

DURHAM, N.C. — To listen to Destoni Carter from Raleigh’s Garner High School, you’d never know she had a phobia of snails. At least until her first backpacking trip, when a friend convinced her to let one glide over her outstretched palm.

Destoni Carter

Destoni Carter from Raleigh’s Garner High School was among eight high schoolers in a new two-week camp that combines science and backpacking.

Soon she started picking them up along the trail. She would collect a couple of snails, put them on a bed of rocks or soil or leaves, and watch to see whether they were speedier on one surface versus another, or at night versus the day.

The experiment was part of a not-so-typical science class.

From June 11-23, 2017, eight high school girls from across North Carolina and four Duke Ph.D. students left hot showers and clean sheets behind, strapped on their boots and packs, and ventured into Pisgah National Forest.

For the high schoolers, it was their first overnight hike. They experienced a lot of things you might expect on such a trip: Hefty packs. Sore muscles. Greasy hair. Crusty socks. But they also did research.

The girls, ages 15-17, were part of a new free summer science program, called Girls on outdoor Adventure for Leadership and Science, or GALS. Over the course of 13 days, they learned ecology, earth science and chemistry while backpacking with Duke scientists.

Duke ecology Ph.D. student Jacqueline Gerson came up with the idea for the program. “Backpacking is a great way to get people out of their comfort zones, and work on leadership development and teambuilding,” said Gerson, who also teamed up with co-instructors Emily Ury, Alice Carter and Emily Levy, all Ph.D. students in ecology or biology at Duke.

Marwa Hassan of Riverside High School in Durham studying stream ecology as part of a two-week summer science program in Pisgah National Forest. Photo by Savannah Midgette.

Marwa Hassan of Riverside High School in Durham studying stream ecology as part of a two-week summer science program in Pisgah National Forest. Photo by Savannah Midgette.

The students hauled 30- to 40-pound loads on their backs for up to five miles a day, through all types of weather. For the first week and a half they covered different themes each day: evolution, geology, soil formation, aquatic chemistry, contaminants. Then on the final leg they chose an independent project. Armed with hand lenses, water chemistry test strips, measuring tapes and other gear, each girl came up with a research question, and had two days to collect and analyze the data.

Briyete Garcia-Diaz of Kings Mountain High School surveyed rhododendrons and other trees at different distances from streambanks to see which species prefer wet soils.

Marwa Hassan of Riverside High School in Durham waded into creeks to net mayfly nymphs and caddisfly larvae to diagnose the health of the watershed.

Savannah Midgette of Manteo High School counted mosses and lichens on the sides of trees, but she also learned something about the secret of slug slime.

“If you lick a slug it makes your tongue go numb. It’s because of the protective coating they have,” Midgette said.

High schoolers head to the backcountry to learn the secret of slug slime and other discoveries of science and self in new girls camp

High schoolers head to the backcountry to learn the secret of slug slime and other discoveries of science and self in new girls camp

The hiking wasn’t always easy. On their second day they were still hours from camp when a thunderstorm rolled in. “We were still sore from the previous day. It started pouring. We were soaking wet and freezing. We did workouts to keep warm,” Midgette said.

At camp they took turns cooking. They stir fried chicken and vegetables and cooked pasta for dinner, and somebody even baked brownies for breakfast. Samantha Cardenas of Charlotte Country Day School discovered that meals that seem so-so at home taste heavenly in the backcountry.

“She would be like, ugh, chicken in a can? And then eat it and say: ‘That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever had,’” said co-instructor Emily Ury.

Savannah Midgette and Briyete Garcia-Diaz drawing interactions within terrestrial systems as part of a new free summer science program called Girls on outdoor Adventure for Leadership and Science, or GALS. Learn more at https://sites.duke.edu/gals/.

Savannah Midgette and Briyete Garcia-Diaz drawing interactions within terrestrial systems as part of a new free summer science program called Girls on outdoor Adventure for Leadership and Science, or GALS. Learn more at https://sites.duke.edu/gals/.

The students were chosen from a pool of over 90 applicants, said co-instructor Emily Levy. There was no fee to participate in the program. Thanks to donations from Duke Outdoor Adventures, Project WILD and others, the girls were able to borrow all the necessary camping gear, including raincoats, rain pants, backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads and stoves.

The students presented their projects on Friday, June 23 in Environment Hall on Duke’s West Campus. Standing in front of her poster in a crisp summer dress, Destoni Carter said going up and down steep hills was hard on her knees. But she’s proud to have made it to the summit of Shining Rock Mountain to see the stunning vistas from the white quartz outcrop near the top.

“I even have a little bit of calf muscle now,” Carter said.

Funding and support for GALS was provided by Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke ecologist Nicolette Cagle, the Duke Graduate School and private donors via GoFundMe.

2017 GALS participants (left to right): Emily Levy of Duke, Destoni Carter of Garner High School, Zyrehia Polk of East Mecklenburg High School, Rose DeConto of Durham School of the Arts, Briyete Garcia-Diaz of Kings Mountain High School, Marwa Hassan of Riverside High School, Jackie Gerson of Duke, Daiana Mendoza of Harnett Central High School, Savannah Midgette of Manteo High School, Samantha Cardenas of Charlotte Country Day School and Alice Carter of Duke.

2017 GALS participants (left to right): Emily Levy of Duke, Destoni Carter of Garner High School, Zyrehia Polk of East Mecklenburg High School, Rose DeConto of Durham School of the Arts, Briyete Garcia-Diaz of Kings Mountain High School, Marwa Hassan of Riverside High School, Jackie Gerson of Duke, Daiana Mendoza of Harnett Central High School, Savannah Midgette of Manteo High School, Samantha Cardenas of Charlotte Country Day School and Alice Carter of Duke.

 

Marine Parasites — Little Guys That Make a Big Difference

If you’re anything like me, the first images that come to mind when you hear the words “marine biology” are singing whales, dolphins racing each other, sharks flying out of the water, maybe a swordfish brawl or two — all the big, flashy stuff.

Of all the things “marine biology” invokes, parasites are probably at the very bottom of my list.

Not so for Joe Morton, a PhD student at the Nicholas School of the Environment and self-taught expert on the parasites that inhabit marine organisms. In fact, Morton posits that parasites play one of the most important roles in all of ecology, by modifying the behavior of ecologically influential host species. And he’s got the research to back it up.

Once back at the lab, Morton takes his place behind the microscope to study his research subjects: marine parasites. Courtesy: Joe Morton.

Morton’s academic quest into the world of marine parasites began about six years ago when he was a master’s student at UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences — just down the road from Duke’s own Marine Lab, where he’s now stationed. Having just read Carl Zimmer’s pop-science book Parasite Rex, Morton wondered whether the marsh periwinkle snails (Littoraria irrorata) he was studying could be infected.

“In my spare time, I would go into the lab at night with a hammer and crack open a bunch of snails to see what I would find,” Morton said. “I didn’t find anything in the literature at the time about Littoraria harboring parasites, which I thought was really unusual because they’re really well-known, important marsh gastropod.”

Morton began to systematically collect Littoraria from local salt marshes, determine their infection status, then examine how the parasites affected the behavior of infected individuals and, in turn, how these behavioral changes affected the ecological health of the salt marsh. This way, Morton figured out that Littoraria infected with digenean trematodes (a class of parasite) climbed and grazed on marsh grass less often than uninfected Littoraria. He also noticed that infected Littoraria congregated at salt marsh “die-off borders,” the edges where marsh grasses stop growing sparsely and start growing in healthy amounts.

A microsopic view of digenean trematodes, the parasites that infect marsh periwinkle snails. Courtesy: Joe Morton.

Based on these observations, Morton designed an experiment to test whether the prevalence of infection among Littoraria correlated with marsh grass health.

“I found that, even under drought stress conditions, parasites could effectively slow the rate at which the marsh died off and help maintain marsh ecosystem structure,” Morton said. “More structure means more nursery habitat for fish. It means more nursery habitat for fiddler crabs. Increased filtration rate of water into the sediment because of crab burrows. The point is, parasites help to increase ecosystem resistance to drought stress.”

Joe Morton traipses through the salt marsh on a windy day. Courtesy: Joe Morton.

Morton was the first to demonstrate this relationship between parasites and marsh health in a behavioral experiment. It’s been a major focus of his research ever since.

“Parasites constitute more than half the life on the planet, but until very recently, parasites were somewhat ignored by ecologists,” Morton said.

Indeed, Morton’s former advisor once told him “never study anything smaller than your thumb.” According to Morton, this was a very widely-held view in ecology up until the last few decades.

“That was very much the idea at the time: these are small things; they probably mean a lot to individual organisms, but they’re may not be important to ecosystems. And now we know that’s just not the case,” Morton said. “Almost everywhere we look, parasites are there; they’re ubiquitous. And they have an important role to play.”

Though parasites are a hot topic in ecology nowadays, Morton, a self-declared “lifelong contrarian,” has a very distinct memory of a childhood moment foreshadowing his current research focus.

“I remember sitting in a barber shop and reading Popular Science magazine, which has an annual list of the ten worst jobs in science. I remember right at the top of the list was ‘parasitic worm biologist.’ And something in my head was just like ‘yeah, I’ll do that,’” Morton said.

Post by Maya Iskandarani

Scientists Engineer Disease-Resistant Rice Without Sacrificing Yield

Researchers have developed a way to make rice more resistant to bacterial blight and other diseases without reducing yield. Photo by Max Pixel.

Researchers have successfully developed a novel method that allows for increased disease resistance in rice without decreasing yield. A team at Duke University, working in collaboration with scientists at Huazhong Agricultural University in China, describe the findings in a paper published May 17, 2017 in the journal Nature.

Rice is one of the most important staple crops, responsible for providing over one-fifth of the calories consumed by humans worldwide. Diseases caused by bacterial or fungal pathogens present a significant problem, and can result in the loss of 80 percent or more of a rice crop.

Decades of research into the plant immune response have identified components that can be used to engineer disease-resistant plants. However, their practical application to crops is limited due to the decreased yield associated with a constantly active defense response.

“Immunity is a double-edged sword, ” said study co-author Xinnian Dong, professor of biology at Duke and lead investigator of the study. “There is often a tradeoff between growth and defense because defense proteins are not only toxic to pathogens but also harmful to self when overexpressed,” Dong said. “This is a major challenge in engineering disease resistance for agricultural use because the ultimate goal is to protect the yield.”

Previous studies have focused on altering the coding sequence or upstream DNA sequence elements of a gene. These upstream DNA elements are known as promoters, and they act as switches that turn on or off a gene’s expression. This is the first step of a gene’s synthesis into its protein product, known as transcription.

By attaching a promoter that gives an “on” signal to a defense gene, a plant can be engineered to be highly resistant to pathogens, though at a cost to growth and yield. These costs can be partially alleviated by attaching the defense gene to a “pathogen specific” promoter that turns on in the presence of pathogen attack.

To further alleviate the negative effects of active defense, the Dong group sought to add an additional layer of control. They turned newly discovered sequence elements, called upstream open reading frames (uORFs), to help address this problem. These sequence elements act on the intermediate of a gene, or messenger (RNA, a molecule similar to DNA) to govern its “translation” into the final protein product. A recent study by the Dong lab in an accompanying paper in Nature has identified many of these elements that respond in a pathogen-inducible manner.

The Dong group hypothesized that adding this pathogen-inducible translational regulation would result in a tighter control of defense protein expression and minimize the lost yield associated with enhanced disease resistance.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers started with Arabidopsis, a flowering plant commonly used in laboratory research. They created a DNA sequence that contains both the transcriptional and translational elements (uORFs) and fused them upstream of the potent “immune activator” gene called snc1. This hybrid sequence was called a “transcriptional/translational cassette” and was inserted into Arabidopsis plants.

When plants have snc1 constitutively active, they are highly resistant to pathogens, but have severely stunted growth. Strikingly, plants with the transcriptional/translational cassette not only have increased resistance, but they also lacked growth defects and resembled healthy wild-type plants. These results show the benefits of adding translational control in engineering plants that have increased resistance without significant costs.

The Dong group then sought to apply these findings to engineer disease-resistant rice, as it is one of the world’s most important crops. They created transgenic rice lines containing the transcriptional/translational cassette driving expression of another potent “immune activator” gene called AtNPR1. This gene was chosen as it has been found to confer broad spectrum pathogen resistance in a wide variety of crop species, including rice, citrus, apple and wheat.

The dry yellowish leaves on these rice plants are a classic symptom of bacterial blight, a devastating disease that affects rice fields worldwide. Photo by Meng Yuan.

The transgenic rice lines containing the transcriptional/translational cassette were infected with bacterial/fungal pathogens that cause three major rice diseases — rice  blight, leaf streak, and fungal blast. These showed high resistance to all three pathogens, indicating broad spectrum resistance could be achieved. Importantly, when grown in the field, their yield — both in terms of grain quantity and quality per plant — was almost unaffected. These results indicate a great potential for agricultural applications.

This strategy is the first known use of adding translational control for the engineering of disease-resistant crops with minimal yield costs. It has many advantages, as it is broadly applicable to a variety of crop species against many pathogens. Since this strategy involves activating the plants’ endogenous defenses, it may also reduce the use of pesticides on crops and hence protect the environment.

Additionally, these findings may be broadly applicable to other systems as well. These upstream elements (uORFs) are widely present in organisms from yeast to humans, with nearly half of all human transcripts containing them. “The great potential in using these elements in controlling protein translation during specific biological processes has yet to be realized,” Dong said.

Corresponding author Xinnian Dong can be reached at xdong@duke.edu or (919) 613-8176.

CITATION:  “uORF-Mediated Translation Allows Engineered Plant Disease Resistance Without Fitness Costs,” Guoyong Xu, Meng Yuan,   Chaoren Ai, Lijing Liu, Edward Zhuang, Sargis Karapetyan, Shiping Wang and Xinnian Dong. Nature, May 17, 2017. DOI: 10.1038/nature22372

 

Guest post by Jonathan Motley

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