Duke Research Blog

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

Category: Field Research Page 1 of 11

Chronicling Migrant Deaths Along the US-Mexico Border

Science, especially social science, is rarely apolitical. Nonetheless, researchers are often hesitant to engage with the political implications of their work. Striving to protect their objective, scientific stance, they leave the discussing and at times the fighting to the politicians and legislators.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason de León is not one of those researchers. Politics is not merely implicated in his work, but rather drives it. De León studies undocumented migration between Mexico and the United States.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León directs the Undocumented Migration Project.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León directs the Undocumented Migration Project.

As director of the Undocumented Migration Project, De León studies what happens to the bodies of migrants crossing the desert to reach the U.S. using “any genre I can steal from,” he told an audience at Duke University on April 5. Using tools from archeology, forensics, photography, and ethnography, de León and his team have been providing novel insights into one of the most urgent political challenges currently facing the nation.

De León acknowledged the political reality of his work immediately by opening his talk with a quote from President Trump about building a “great wall.” However, he was quick to clarify that the problem of missing migrants is not partisan. Rather, it has a long history that he argues started with the 1993 immigration enforcement policy, “Prevention through Deterrence.” This policy’s aim was to redirect illegal immigration to the desert rather than to stop it. Politicians hoped that in the desert, where security is weak and the terrain treacherous, the natural terrain would serve as a border wall. Inherent in this policy is the assumption that migrant life is expandable.

In the wake of this policy, the human smuggling industry in northern Mexico experienced a swift influx and the number of known migrant deaths began to rise. Since the 1990s, over 600 migrant bodies have been recovered from the Sonoran Desert of Arizona where de León conducts his research. Until his team conducted the first forensic experiments on the site, people could only speculate as to what was happening to the bodies of missing loved ones hoping to make it across the border. Now, de León can offer some helpful if heartbreaking data.


De León examines the human consequences of U.S. immigration policy in his book, “The Land of Open Graves”

De León’s archeological method, “desert taphonomy,” examines both the natural and cultural processes that determine what happens to a dead body. Anthropologists studying the body’s decomposition were initially interested only in natural factors like the climate and scavenging animals. Recently, they have realized that the decomposition process is as social as it is natural, and that the beliefs and attitudes of the agents involved affect what happens to human remains. According to this definition, a federal policy that leaves dead bodies to decompose in the Arizona desert is taphonomy, and so is the constellation of social, economic, and political factors that drive people to risk their lives crossing a treacherous, scorching desert on foot.

Guided by this new approach, de León studies social indicators to trace the roots of missing bodies, such as “migrant stations” made up of personal belongings left behind by migrant groups, which he says can at times be too big to analyze. De León and his team document these remnants with the same respect they pay to any traditional archeological trail. Items that many would dismiss as trash, such as gendered items including clothes and hygiene products, can reveal much needed information about the makeup of the migrant groups crossing the desert.

De León argues that human decomposition is a form of political violence, caused by federal policies like Prevention through Deterrence. His passion for his research is clearly not driven by mere intellectual curiosity; he is driven by the immense human tragedy of migrant deaths. He regularly conducts searches for missing migrants that families reach out to him about as a desperate last measure. Even though the missing individuals are often unlikely to be found alive, de León hopes to assuage the trauma of “ambiguous loss,” wherein the lack of verification of death freezes the grief process and makes closure impossible for loved ones.

The multifaceted nature of de León’s work has allowed him to inspire change across diverse realms. He has been impactful not only in academia but also in the policy and public worlds. His book, “The Land of Open Graves,” is accessible and poetic. He has organized multiple art exhibitions that translate his research to educate and empower the public. Through the success of these installations, he has come to realize that exhibition work is “just as valuable as a journal article.”

Backpacks left behind by undocumented immigrants in the exhibition,
“State of Exception.”

Hearing about the lives that de León has touched suggests that perhaps, all researchers should be unafraid to step outside of their labs to not only acknowledge but embrace the complex and critical political implications of their work.

Guest Post by Deniz Ariturk

A How-To Guide for Climate-Proof Cities

Roughly 400 miles separate Memphis and New Orleans. Interstate 55 connects the two cities, snaking south parallel to the Mississippi River. The drive is dull. There are few cars. The trees are endless.

South of the Louisiana border, the land turns flat, low, and wet. The air grows warmer, and heavy with moisture. I-55 cuts through the center of Maurepas Swamp, a 100,000-plus acre tract of protected wetlands. Groves of gumball and oak are rare here—instead, thin swamps of bald cypress and tupelo trees surround the highway on either side. At night, only their skeletal silhouettes are visible. They rise from the low water, briefly illuminated by passing headlights. Even in the dark, the trees are unmistakably dead.

*  *  *

A healthy cypress swamp in Lake Martin, Louisiana (Source: U.S. Geological Survey)

Traditionally, Maurepas Swamp serves as a natural barrier against flooding that threatens New Orleans each year. Native flora soaks up the rainfall, spreading it across a network of cypress roots and cattail. But centuries of logging and canal construction have drastically altered the swamp’s ecological composition. The Mississippi levee system compounded the issue, isolating the swamp from vital sources of fresh water and nutrients. Flooded with saltwater, much of the existing cypress withered and died. Young trees, now, are few and scattered. 

Maurepas Swamp highlights the danger of even the most well-intentioned changes to the  environment. This problem is hardly unique to the wetlands. “Many of the issues that we are experiencing today were seen as solutions in the past,” says Nancy Grimm, a professor of ecology at Arizona State University. “What we want to do now is to think about the future, so that the solutions of today don’t become the problems of tomorrow.”

Nancy Grimm addresses urban sustainability at the 2019 Henry J. Oosting Memorial Lecture in Ecology. (Source: Nicholas School of the Environment)

Grimm is the co-director of the UREx Sustainability Research Network. UREx aims to climate-proof urban municipalities without sacrificing environmental stability. To do so, UREx has partnered with several cities across the United States and Latin America. Each city hosts a workshop geared towards municipal decision makers, such as government officials,  environmental NGOS, and more. Together, these participants design different “futures” addressing their cities’ most pressing concerns. 

Phoenix, Arizona is one of the nine initial cities partnering with UREx. One of the hottest cities in the United States, Phoenix is already plagued with extreme heat and drought. By 2060, Phoenix is projected to have 132 days above 100°F—a 44 percent increase from data collected in 2010.  

UREx doesn’t dwell too much on these statistics.  “We’re bombarded constantly by dystopian narratives of tomorrow,” says Grimm, with a slight smile. “Instead, what we want to think about are ways we can envision a more positive future.”

The Phoenix workshop produced five distinct visions of what the city could look like in sixty years. Some scenarios are more ambitious than others—“The Right Kind of Green,” for example, imagines a vastly transformed city defined by urban gardens and lush vegetation. But each vision of Phoenix contains a common goal: a greener, cooler city that retains its soul. 

A visualization accompanies each scenario. In one, a family walks about a small orchard. The sky is blue, and the sun is out. But no one seems bothered by the heat. The oranges are vibrant; the trees thick, and full. It’s an idyllic future. But it’s one within grasp.  

Post by Jeremy Jacobs

Open Communication is Key to Research in Schools

One of the things that excited me most about coming to Duke was the amount of research being done on campus, from theoretical physics to biological field work or cultural anthropology. I recently had the opportunity to attend a panel about conducting research in schools. As someone who has only ever done biological and chemistry-based lab work, I was eager to learn more about how research is conducted in other disciplines.

Doing research in schools is particularly challenging because it includes so many parties. The research goals must align with the school district’s priorities, collaboration must occur with the teachers, administrators and researchers about the design of the study and feasibility of implementations, and there must be cooperation from the students who are often young children unaware of the research going on.

Ultimately, the core role of schools is to educate children. Thus, in order to conduct research, the team needs to find a way to provide a clear benefit to schools for participation and make sure of protecting instruction time, reducing the burden on teachers.

The main purpose of the panel was to help Duke researchers better understand how to effectively interact and conduct research in schools. This was very well reflected in the four panelists Amy Davis, Cherry Johnson, Michele Woodson, and Holle Williams who each gave short, individual presentations.

Essentially,  the goal of a school is to provide high-quality education to the students. So to conduct research, researchers must find a way to make their goals applicable to the teachers.

Davis, the coordinator of grants, research, and development in Durham Public Schools explained that because of their large minority population, researchers often want to partner with them. Davis explained that researchers should strive to work collaboratively in a way that will yield what the researcher needs but also benefit the school. The focus of the teachers and administrators is not on research and they are not experts in things like research design.

She urged researchers to first reach out to her because she knows which schools would be a viable fit and can help provide the language to talk directly to them. Furthermore, she addressed that researchers sometimes need to have the flexibility to alter the research design when working in schools.

Johnson, the Director of Research and Grant Development in Johnston County Public Schools began by explaining how her district is driven by principles of relationships, relevance, and innovation.

She added that they are  “always interested in collab opportunities between universities and JCPS.”

However, studies that can aid in furthering their priorities, namely innovation, teacher recruitment and social and emotional learning will have a higher likelihood of being conducted successfully.

What makes the county so unique is that they are almost two districts within one.

“We still have notable lines between the haves and have nots,” Johnson added referring to large the socioeconomic differences between the Raleigh commuters and farm families.

To address some of these challenges, JCPS are participating in many partnerships with universities like NC State, UNC and Duke including a study with Dr. Leslie M. Babinski, associate research professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy.

Dr. Babinski conducting research in schools
Dr. Babinski working with students

Ultimately, university research is not a school district’s top priority. However, Woodson added that if the research has the ability to aid the school in accomplishing their goals then it increases the likelihood of success for both parties.

The last speaker was Holle Williams the Director of Main Campus Institutional Review Board at Duke University. Most schools require the approval of Duke’s IRB, which aims to protect the rights and welfare of human research subjects. Williams explained that their goal is to understand the intent of the researcher’s project.

“We want to make sure that what you are doing, what you are contemplating meets the definition of research” Williams stated.

Understanding intent allows then to distinguish research from other kinds of projects where research can help the school but also must contribute to the universal knowledge of a given education based topic.

A big emphasis of the talk was open communication. Both the school representatives and director of IRB highlighted that in order to most efficiently carry out a research project, the researchers should make sure to reach out to both the schools as well as main campus IRB. Through effective communication, strong partnerships can be built between the Duke community and local schools to conduct research that benefits both parties.

Post by Anna Gotskind

Alex Dehgan and The Snow Leopard Project

Traveling through war-torn areas at risk of encountering landmines, militia, and difficult terrain, Alex Dehgan was protected only by a borrowed Toyota Corolla. Dehgan, the Chanler Innovator in Residence at Duke, has spent much of his life overseas addressing conflict in Afghanistan through promoting wildlife conservation.

As a result, Dehgan has served in multiple positions within the U.S. Department of State, including the office of the secretary, and the bureau of Near Eastern affairs. There, he aided in addressing foreign policy issues in Iran, Iraq, and Egypt and contributed to the improvement of science diplomacy. Recently, he founded the Office of Science and Technology as the Chief Scientist at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Dehgan Speaking at Duke

Dehgan recently gave a talk at Duke on the snow leopard project, an effort he spearheaded focusing on snow leopard (Panthera uncia)  and other wildlife conservation in Afghanistan. Because of the conflict, most people are not aware of the incredible wildlife and natural beauty within the country’s borders.

Snow Leopard Project Gallery Photo

In his conservation efforts, Dehgan visited the Pamir, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and Tien Shian mountain ranges hoping to learn more about the wildlife that lived there and the best way to promote their conservation. He used camera traps and collected scat to figure out species were in the area.

He began by talking about the Pamir mountains. Despite the fact that this is a very dangerous region to be, Dehgan ventured in ready to work with locals and discover the wildlife there. Once,  a member of his team asked if they could forgo checking the camera traps for the day because they were being bombed by the U.S. Army. However, it was worth it because Dehgan had the opportunity to work with locals and collect images as well as data on several unique species.

This included the Marco Polo sheep (Ovis ammon polii), enormous sheep that live in single-sex groups for most of the year. They only come together to mate and when they do, the males clash heads with one another for the ability to procreate. He was also able to find a markhor (Capra falconeri), which he prefers to call a “Twin-horn unicorn.” Markhor means snake eater, but the animal does not actually eat snakes. These animals are so valuable that a hunter once paid $110,000 to shoot one. Dehgan and his team were able to collect hair and genetic samples of musk deer (Moschus), which can be found in very steep areas of the Pamir mountains. These animals derive their name from the musk they produce which is often used in perfumes.

Snow Leopard Project Gallery Photo

The area is known as Nuristan, the land of the enlightened, and is unique in that each valley has its own tradition, crafts, and even dialect. Dehgan and his team worked with people from the region and trained them to look for the specific animals

One of the most remarkable places Dehgan visited was Band-e Amir, which he described as looking like the grand canyon. The most unique natural aspect is a system of six lakes formed by the same process that creates stalactites and stalagmites. Above the lakes is an incredible mountain range and on top of the mountains are marine fossils because it used to be at the bottom of the sea. Here, Dehgan was able to use camera traps to collect images of ibexes (Capra ibex), Persian leopards (Panthera pardus saxicolor), and poachers. Poaching would eventually become one of Dehgan’s key focuses. Dehgan and his team also discovered Asiatic wild asses and assumed the presence of Asiatic leopards after finding their skins in the nearby villages.

Dehgan discovered that there was a massive trade in wildlife driven by the U.S. military. Skins of snow leopards and Persian leopards could be found all over Afghanistan as a part of illegal wildlife trade and other wildlife like Saker Falcons could be sold for up to $1 million.

As a result, Dehgan started a program around wildlife trafficking. A major part of his effort took place on Chicken Street, a busy shopping area where illegal animal skins could frequently be found. Dehgan worked closely with U.S. Military police, training them on how to identify furs.

Dehgan also worked with Afghani airport employees on how to inspect baggage for illegal furs. This resulted in the shut down of nearly all illegal fur trade, which Dehgan said was one of his biggest successes. In fact, one day while in Afghanistan, Dehgan received word that a fur trader wished to speak with him. Assuming they were angry at him for reducing their business Dehgan said that he actually feared for his life. However, it turned out that the fur trader simply wanted to be trained to identify illegal furs because they too wanted to protect Afghanistan’s wildlife.

Dehgan explained that Afghanistan was one of the easiest places he ever did conservation. This is because 80 percent of the human population is dependent on natural resources and thus when the wildlife fails, they fail. Because of this, they are eager to help aid in promoting conservation efforts.

Additionally, Dehgan was able to create the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Afghanistan Program which resulted in Afghanistan’s first and second national parks. Villages held local elections to set up a committee and to set up rules to govern the national parks.

Ultimately, his conservation work not only helped wildlife, but supported democracy by empowering, working with and training local communities.

To learn more, check out Dehgan’s recently published book, “The Snow Leopard Project” as well as his twitter, @lemurwrangler.

By Anna Gotskind

Meet the Researcher Who Changed How We Care for Rape Survivors

One of the first things I was told during freshman orientation was that two out of every five young women at Duke experience some form of sexual assault during their four years as an undergraduate. Shortly after that, I was informed that as a Duke student, I was not allowed to protect myself with pepper spray, because it is banned by university policy.

At the 2019 Harriet Cook Carter Lecture, Ann Burgess, a professor of psychiatric mental health nursing at Boston College, reported that 25 to 30 percent of women and 10 percent of men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, statistics that make our campus standard of 40 percent seem strikingly high in comparison. Burgess has devoted her life to the support of sexual assault survivors, and pioneered treatments for victims of such abuse. For the past fifty years, she has studied the traumatic effects of rape and violence on patients of all ages, and worked closely with the FBI Academy to research the underlying causes of such crimes. Her work at the FBI was so impactful, Netflix decided to write a TV series about her, a crime drama called “Mindhunter.” Talk about a powerful woman.

Ann Wolbert Burgess, DSNc, APRN, BC, FAAN (Photo from Duke University School of Nursing)

When she began her work with rape survivors in the 1970s, the world was a very different place. Public attitudes towards sexual assault were unsupportive and disapproving of victims. Rape thrived on prudery, silence, and misunderstanding. There were very few reported cases, low conviction rates of criminals, and plenty of victim blaming. “We just didn’t talk about these kinds of things,” Burgess recalled. “There was no public recognition.”

So have we advanced? Yes, absolutely. Throughout the years, Burgess says she has seen a crucial shift towards more support for survivors. She has helped the FBI develop better systems for criminal profiling, and testified countless times in court to ensure justice for survivors of all ages. Burgess has witnessed these court cases changing policies, and affecting the genesis of laws that will better protect citizens against rape and other violent crimes. She has studied lasting trauma in survivors, and used this research to implement new culturally and developmentally appropriate services for victims. She believes that, as a society, we are doing a much better job today to reduce stigma and support survivors, but that the work is not even close to finished.

Sexual assault is still an intensely pervasive issue in society. Rape can happen anywhere, to anyone, and Burgess thinks it all boils down to the cultural emphasis on aggression. “We’ve all become complacent to the violence in the world that we live in,” as panelist Lynden Harris put it. As a society, we perpetuate aggressive masculinity, often without even realizing it. And especially in communities like the military, where women and men alike are highly regulated and taught to avoid showing weakness at all costs, the stigma surrounding sexual assault is intense. Commander Alana Burden-Huber, director of public health services at the Cherry Point Naval Health Clinic, shared her perspective that it can be very difficult to come forward in such a world of conformity. She also mentioned that female jurors in sexual assault cases tend to be much harsher on female survivors than male jurors, and attributes this to the fact that female members of the military are constantly trying to be harder and more stoic, so as to parallel military men.

Mindy Oshrain and Ann Burgess listen intently to the contributions of other panelists

Panelist Mindy Oshrain, a consulting associate in the Duke Department of Psychiatry, quieted the crowd by sharing a moving quote from Maya Angelou: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” She reminded us that it is so important to listen to patients, and slow down enough to ask someone multiple times if they are doing okay. It is easy to forget this at a place like Duke, where we are all constantly moving 100 miles a minute, checking boxes as we rush from one activity to the next, but it can make all the difference to stop, and take the time to ask again- How are you really doing? What can I do to support you? Empathy has the power to change the world.

As a sophomore, I now live in a building full of young women on the edge of Central Campus, on a street that is only serviced by Duke transportation in one direction. Just a few months ago, I woke up to a Duke Alert message on my phone, which informed me that a violent rape crime had occurred in the night, just fifty yards from my apartment. While we may have come a long way since the 1970s, the unavoidable fact remains that as young women living in this world, we are not safe. Let’s change that.

Post by Anne Littlewood, Trinity ’21

The Importance of Moms

Emily Bray, Ph.D., might have the best job ever. Since earning her bachelor’s at Duke in 2012, she has been researching cognitive development in puppies, which basically means she’s spent the last seven years playing with dogs. If that’s not success, I don’t know what is.

Last Friday marked the 10th birthday of Duke’s Canine Cognition Center, and the 210th birthday of Charles Darwin. To celebrate, Brian Hare, Ph.D., invited former student Bray back to campus to share her latest research with a new generation of Duke undergraduates. The room was riveted — both by her compelling findings and by the darling photos of labs and golden retrievers that accompanied each slide.

Dr. Emily Bray shows photos of her study participants

During her Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania, Bray worked with Robert Seyfarth, Dorothy Cheney, and James Serpell to investigate the effects of mothering on puppy development. For her dissertation, she studied a population of dog moms and their puppies at The Seeing Eye, Inc. The Seeing Eye is one of the oldest and largest guide dog schools in the U.S. They have been successfully raising and training service dogs for the blind since 1929, but like most things, it is still an imperfect science. Approximately half of the puppies bred at The Seeing Eye fail out of program. A dog that completes service training at The Seeing Eye represents two years of intensive training and care, and investing so much time and money into a dog that might eventually fail is problematic. Being able to predict the outcomes of puppies would save a lot of wasted time and energy, and Emily Bray has been doing just this.

What makes a good dog mom? (Photo from Dirk Vorderstraße, from Wikimedia Commons)

Through her work at The Seeing Eye, Bray found that, similar to humans, dogs have several types of mothering styles. She discovered that dog moms tend to fall somewhere on the spectrum from low to high maternal involvement. Some of the moms were very involved with their puppies, and seldom left their side. These hovering moms had high levels of cortisol, and became quite stressed when separated briefly from a puppy. They coddled their children, and often nursed from a laying down position, doing everything they could to make life easy for their babies. On the other side of the spectrum, Bray also observed moms that displayed much more relaxed mothering. They often took personal time, and let their puppies fend for themselves. They were more likely to nurse while sitting or standing up, which made their children work harder to feed. They were less stressed when separated from a puppy, and also just had generally lower levels of cortisol. Sound like bad parenting? Believe it or not, this tough love actually resulted in more successful puppies.

Duke’s very own assistance dogs in training!

As the puppies matured, Bray conducted a series of cognitive and temperament tests to determine if maternal style was associated with a certain way of thinking in the puppies. Turns out, dogs who experienced high maternal care actually performed much worse on the tests than dogs who were shown tough love when they were young. At The Seeing Eye graduation, it was also determined that high maternal care and ventral nursing was associated with failure. Puppies that were over-mothered were more likely to fail as service dogs.

Her theory is that tough love raises more resilient puppies. When mom is always around, the puppies don’t get the chance to experience small stressors and learn how to deal with challenge. The more relaxed moms actually did their kids a favor by not being so overbearing, and allowed for much more independent development.

Bray is now doing post-doctoral research at the University of Arizona, where she is working with Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) to determine if maternal style has similar effects on the outcomes of dogs that will be trained to assist people with a wide range of disabilities. She is also now doing cognition and temperament tests on moms pre-pregnancy to determine if maternal behavior can be predicted before the dogs have puppies. Knowing this could be a game changer, as this information could be used for selective breeding of better moms.

Me snuggling Ashton, one of the Puppy Kindergarten dogs

If you got the chance to hang out with puppies Ashton, Aiden, or Dune last semester, you have an idea of how awesome Bray’s day-to-day work is. These pups were bred at CCI, and sent to Duke to be enrolled in Duke Puppy Kindergarten, a new program on campus run through Duke’s Canine Cognition Center. Which of these three will make it to graduation? I’ve got money on Ashton, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

The bottom line according to Bray? “Mothering matters, but in moderation.”

An Indirect Path to Some Extreme Science

Dr. Cynthia Darnell’s path to becoming a postdoctoral researcher in the Amy Schmid Labat Duke University was, in her words, “not straightforward.”

Dr. Cynthia Darnell is a Postdoc at Duke, studying ‘extremophiles.’

At the start of her post-high school career, Darnell had no clue what she wanted to do, so she went to community college for the first two years while she decided. She had anticipated that she was going to go to college as an art major, but had always enjoyed biology.

While at community college she took a couple biology courses. She transferred to another college where she took a course in genetics and according to her, “it blew my mind.” While at the college she took a variety of different biology courses. Her genetics professor’s wife was looking for a lab technician in the microbiology lab she ran. After Darnell worked there for two years, she decided to go to graduate school and had a whole list of places/universities she could attend.

However, after going to a conference in Chicago and meeting her future graduate advisor, Darnell made the decision to go to Iowa for six years of Graduate school. She ended up in the Schmid Lab at Duke University for her “postdoc” after her boss had recommended the lab to her.

Previously, Darnell had done research on the connectedness of genetic pathways in halophilic extremophiles — bacteria that lived in extremely salty conditions. She developed projects to understand the how their genetic network sends and receives signals.

Darnell is continuing that research at Duke while also looking at the effects of different environmental factors on growth and the genetic network using mutant halophilic extremophiles.

Darnell with some plated archaebacteria in her Duke lab

There are generally three different paths Darnell’s day in the lab can take. The first path is a bench day. During a bench day, she will be doing experiments looking at growth curves, microscopes or RNA extracts. The second path is a computational day in which she will do sequencing to look at gene expression. The third option is a writing day in which she spends a majority of her time writing up grants, papers, and applications.

Dr. Darnell wishes to open up her own lab in the future and serve underprivileged students in underserved areas. She wishes to do more research in the area of archaebacteria because of how under researched and underrepresented it is in the scientific community. Dr. Darnell hopes to study more about the signaling networks in archaebacteria in her own lab someday.

She especially wishes to be able to open her lab up to underprivileged students, exposing them to the possibilities of research and graduate programs.

Guest Post by Tejaswi Siripurapu, NCSSM 2019

The Importance of Evidence in Environmental Conservation

What counts as good evidence?

In medical research, a professional might answer this question as you would expect: evidence can be trusted if it is the result of a randomized, controlled, double-blind experiment, meaning the evidence is only as strong as the experiment design. And in medicine, it’s possible (and important) to procure this kind of strong evidence.

But when it comes to conservation, it’s a whole different story.

Dr. David Gill (photo from The Nicholas School)

The natural world is complicated, and far beyond our control. When studying the implications of conservation, it’s not so easy to design the kind of experiment that will produce “good” evidence.

David Gill, a professor in Duke’s Nicholas School for the Environment, recently led a study featured in the journal Nature that needed to  define what constitutes good evidence in the realm of marine conservation. Last Wednesday, he made a guest appearance in my Bass Connections meeting to share his work and a perspective on the importance of quality evidence.

Gill’s research has been centered around evaluating the effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas (or MPAs) as a way of protecting marine life. Seven percent of the world’s oceans are currently designated as MPAs, and by 2020, the goal is to increase this number to 10 percent. MPAs arguably have massive effects on ecosystem health and coastal community functioning, but where is the evidence for this claim?

Although past investigations have provided support for creating MPAs,  Gill and his team were concerned with the quality of this evidence, and the link between how MPAs are managed and how well they work. There have historically been acute gaps in study design when researching the effects of MPAs. Few experiments have included pre-MPA conditions or an attempt to control for other factors. Most of these studies have been done in hindsight, and have looked only at the ecological effects within the boundaries of MPAs, without any useful baseline data or control sites to compare them to.

As a result of these limitations, the evidence base is weak. Generating good evidence is a massive undertaking when you are attempting to validate a claim by counting several thousand moving fish.

Gill’s measure of ecosystem health includes counting fish. (Photo from Avoini)

So is there no way to understand the impacts of MPAs? Should conservation scientists just give up? The answer is no, absolutely not.

To produce better evidence, Gill and his team needed to design a study that would isolate the effects of MPAs. To do this, they needed to account for location biases and other confounding variables such as the biophysical conditions of the environment, the population density of nearby human communities, and the national regulations in each place.

The solution they came up with was to compare observations of current conditions within MPAs to “counterfactual” evidence, which is defined as what would have happened had the MPA not been there. Using statistical matching of MPAs to nearby non-MPA and pre-MPA sites, they were able to obtain high-quality results.

A happy sea turtle pictured in a marine protected area (photo from English Foreign and Commonwealth Office.)

The research showed that across 16,000 sampled sites, MPAs had positive ecological impacts on fish biomass in 71 percent of sites. They also discovered that MPAs with adequate staffing had far greater ecological impacts than those without, which is a pretty interesting piece of feedback when it comes to future development. It’s probably not worth it to create MPAs before there is sufficient funding in place to maintain them.

Gill doesn’t claim that his evidence is flawless; he fully admits to the shortcomings in this study, such as the fact that there is very little data on temperate, coldwater regions — mostly because there are few MPAs in these regions.

The field is ripe for improvement, and he suggests that future research look into the social impacts of MPAs and the implications of these interventions for different species. As the evidence continues to improve, it will be increasingly possible to maximize the win-wins when designing MPAs.

Conservation science isn’t perfect, but neither is medicine. We’ll get there.

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

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