A study of British twins appearing this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that an adolescent’s sense of their own family’s social and economic standing is closely linked to that child’s physical and cognitive health.
fact, the adolescent’s perception of status was a more powerful predictor of their
well-being and readiness for further education than their family’s actual
status. The study sample represented the full range of
socioeconomic conditions in the U.K.
“Testing how young people’s perceptions related to well-being among twins provided a rare opportunity to control for poverty status as well as environmental and genetic factors shared by children within the same family,” said lead author Joshua Rivenbark, an MD/PhD student in Duke’s Medical School and Sanford School of Public Policy.
“Siblings grew up with equal access to objective resources, but many differed in where they placed their family on the social ladder – which then signaled how well each twin was doing,” Rivenbark said.
Researchers followed 2,232 same-sex twins born in England and Wales in 1994-95 who were part of the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study based at King’s College London. Adolescents assessed their family’s social ranking at ages 12 and 18. By late adolescence, these beliefs signaled how well the teen was doing, independent of the family’s access to financial resources, healthcare, adequate nutrition and educational opportunities. This pattern was not seen at age 12.
amount of financial resources children have access to is one of the most
reliable predictors of their health and life chances,” said Candice Odgers, a professor
of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine, who is the senior
author of the report. “But these findings show that how young people see their
family’s place in a hierarchical system also matters. Their perceptions of
social status were an equally good, and often stronger, indicator of how well
they were going to do with respect to mental health and social outcomes.”
findings also showed that despite growing up in the same family, the twins’
views were not always identical. By age 18, the twin who rated the family’s
standing as higher was less likely to be convicted of a crime; was more often
educated, employed or in training; and had fewer mental health problems than his
or her sibling.
that experimentally manipulate how young people see their social position would
be needed to sort out cause from effect,” Rivenbark said.
The E-Risk study was founded and is co-directed by Duke professors Avshalom Caspi and Terrie Moffitt at King’s College London.
Guest Post by Pat Harriman, UC-Irvine News @UCIPat
This is the sixth and final 2019 post written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.
Dr. Patrick Codd is the Director of the Duke Brain Tool Laboratory and an Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at Duke. Working as a neurosurgeon and helping with the research and development of various neurosurgical devices is “a delicate balance,” he said.
Codd currently runs a
minimally invasive neurosurgery group. However, at Massachusetts General
Hospital, he used to run the trauma section. When asked about which role was
more stressful, he stated “they were both pretty stressful” but for different
reasons. At Mass General, he was on call for most hours of the day and had to
pull long shifts in the operating room. At Duke, he has to juggle surgery,
teaching, and research and the development of new technology.
“I didn’t know I was
going to be a neurosurgeon until I was in college,” Codd said. Despite all of
the interesting specialties he learned about in medical school, he said “it was
always neurosurgery that brought me back.”
Currently, he is
exclusively conducting cranial surgery.
Though Dr. Codd has earned
many leadership positions in his career, he said he was never focused on advancement.
He simply enjoys working on topics which he loves, such as improving minimally
invasive surgical techniques. But being in leadership lets him unite other
people who are interested in working towards a common goal in research and
development. He has been able to skillfully bring people together from various
specialties and help guide them. However, it is difficult to meet everyone’s
needs all of the time. What is important for him is to be a leader when he
needs to be.
Dr. Codd said there are typically five to eight research papers necessary in to lay the groundwork for every device that is developed. However, some technologies are based on the development of a single paper. He has worked on devices that make surgery more efficient and less minimally invasive and those that help the surgical team work together better. When developing technologies, he tries to keep the original purpose of the devices the same. However, many revisions are made to the initial design plans as requirements from the FDA and other institutions must be met. Ironically, Dr. Codd can’t use the devices he develops in his own operating room because it would be a conflict of interest. Typically other neurosurgeons from across the country will use them instead.
This is the second of several posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.
As an occasional volunteer at a local children’s museum, I
can tell you that children take many different approaches to sharing. Some will
happily lend others their favorite toys, while others will burst into tears at
the suggestion of giving others a turn in an exhibit.
For Rita Svetlova Ph.D. at the Duke Empathy Development Lab, these behaviors aren’t just passing observations, they are her primary scientific focus. In November, I sat down with Dr. Svetlova to discuss her current research, past investigations, and future plans.
Originally from Russia, Svetlova obtained an M.A. from
Lomonosov Moscow State University in Moscow before earning her Ph.D in
developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. She later worked as
a post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary
Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
Now at Duke University as an assistant research professor of psychology and neuroscience and the principal investigator in the Empathy Development Lab, Svetlova looks at the development of ‘prosocial’ behavior in children — behaviors such as sharing, empathy, and teamwork.
Svetlova credits her mentor at the University of Pittsburgh,
Dr. Celia Brownell, for inspiring her to pursue child psychology and
development. “I’ve always been interested in prosociality, but when I was in
Russia I actually studied linguistics,” she says. “When I moved to the U.S., I
changed paths partly because I’ve always wanted to know more about human
psychology. The reason I started studying children is partly because I was
interested in it and partly because I met Dr. Brownell. I branched out a little
bit, but I generally found it interesting.”
Although her passion for childhood development research
began in Pittsburgh, Svetlova has
embraced her role as a Duke researcher, most recently tackling a scenario that
most academically-inclined readers are familiar with — a partner’s failure to
perform in a joint-commitment — in a co-authored May 2017 paper titled
“Three-Year-Olds’ Reactions to a Partner’s Failure to Perform Her Role in a
the study, 144 three-year-olds were presented with a common joint commitment
scenario: playing a game. For one third of the children, the game ended when
their partner defected, while another third of the test group had a partner who
didn’t know how to play. The final third
of the group saw the game apparatus break. Svetlova looked at how the
children’s reactions varied by scenario: protesting defectors, teaching the
ignorant partner, and blaming the broken apparatus. The results seem to suggest
that three-year-olds have the ability to evaluate intentions in a joint
paper Svetlova co-authored, titled “Three- and 5-Year-Old Childrens’ Understanding
of How to Dissolve a Joint Commitment,” compared the reactions of three- and
five-year-olds when a puppet left a collaborative game with either permission,
prior notification, or suddenly without prior notification. If the puppet left
without warning, three-year-old subjects protested more and waited longer for
the puppet’s return, but both age groups seemed to understand the agreement implicit
in a joint commitment.
joint commitments are only a small fraction of the questions that Svetlova
hopes to address.
longitudinal study of prosociality would be amazing,” she says. “What I’m
interested in now is the intersection of fairness understanding and
in-group/out-group bias. What I am trying to look into is how children
understand their in-group members vs. out-group members and whether there’s
something we can do to make them more accepting of their out-group members.”
one I am interested in is the neural basis of empathy and prosocial behavior. I
haven’t started yet, but I’m planning a couple of studies on looking into the
brain mechanisms of empathy in particular,” Svetolova says. “We plan to scan
children and adults while experiencing an emotion themselves and compare that
brain activation to the brain activation while witnessing someone experiencing
an emotion, the question being ‘do we really feel others’ emotions as our
also expressed her interest in the roles that gender, culture, and upbringing
play in a child’s development of prosociality.
had to ask her why teenagers seemed to “regress” in prosociality, seemingly
becoming more selfish when compared to their childhood selves.
“I would distinguish between self-centered and selfish,” she assured me. “You are not necessarily selfish, it’s just that during teenagehood you are looking for your place in the world, in the ‘pack.’ That’s why these things become very important, other’s opinions about you and your reputation in this little group, people become very anxious about it, it doesn’t mean that they become selfish all of a sudden or stop being prosocial.” She added, “I believe in the good in people, including teenagers.”
This is the first of several posts written by students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as part of an elective about science communication with Dean Amy Sheck.
Claudia Gunsch, the Theodore Kennedy distinguished associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering, wants to know how to engineer a microbial community. An environmental engineer with a fascination for the world at the micro level, Gunsch takes a unique approach to solving the problem of environmental pollution: She looks to what’s already been done by nature.
Gunsch and her team seek to harness the power of microbes to create living communities capable of degrading contamination in the environment.
“How can you engineer that microbial community so the
organisms that degrade the pollutant become enriched?” she asks. “Or — if
you’re thinking about dangerous pathogenic organisms — how do you engineer the
microbial community so that those organisms become depressed in that particular
The first step, Gunsch says, is to figure out who’s there.
What microbes make up a community? How do these organisms function? Who is
doing what? Which organisms are interchangeable? Which prefer to live with one
another, and which prefer not living with one another?
“Once we can really start building that kind of framework,”
she says, “we can start engineering it for our particular purposes.”
Yet identifying the members of a microbial community is far
more difficult than it may seem. Shallow databases coupled with vast variations
in microbial communities leave Gunsch and her team with quite a challenge.
Gunsch, however, remains optimistic.
“The exciting part is that we have all these technologies
where we can sequence all these samples,” she says. “As we become more
sophisticated and more people do this type of research, we keep feeding all of
this data into these databases. Then we will have more information and one day,
we’ll be able to go out and take that sample and know exactly who’s there.”
“Right now, it’s in its infancy,” she says with a smile.
“But in the long-term, I have no doubt we will get there.”
Gunsch is currently working on Duke’s Superfund Research
Center designing bioremediation technologies for the degradation of polycyclic
aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) contamination. These pollutants are extremely
difficult to break down due to their tendency to stick strongly onto soil and
sediments. Gunsch and her team are searching for the right microbial community
to break these compounds down — all by taking advantage of the innate
capabilities of these microorganisms.
Step one, Gunsch says, has already been completed. She and
her team have identified several different organisms capable of degrading PAHs.
The next step, she explains, is assembling the microbial communities — taking
these organisms and getting them to work together, sometimes even across
kingdoms of life. Teamwork at the micro level.
The subsequent challenge, then, is figuring out how these
organisms will survive and thrive in the environment they’re placed in, and
which microbial seeds will best degrade the contamination when placed in the
environment. This technique is known as “precision bioremediation” — similar to
precision medicine, it involves finding the right solution in the right amounts
to be the most effective in a certain scenario.
“In this particular case, we’re trying to figure out what
the right cocktail of microbes we can add to an environment that will lead to
the end result that is desired — in this case, PAH degradation,” Gunsch says.
Ultimately, the aim is to reduce pollution and restore
ecological health to contaminated environments. A lofty goal, but one within
sight. Yet Gunsch sees applications beyond work in the environment — all work dealing
with microbes, she says, has the potential to be impacted by this research.
“If we understand how these organisms work together,” she says, “then we can advance our understanding of human health microbiomes as well.”
In Queensland, Australia, early March can
be 96 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere, but that’s
still pretty hot.
Although hot, dry Australia probably isn’t the first place you’d think to look for ferns, that’s precisely why I’m here and the sole reason we’ve hit the road at 6 a.m. Our schedule for the day: to drive as far south as we can while still letting us come home at the end of the day.
My local colleague, Ashley Field, grew up just the next town over. A skinny, speedy man, he works at James Cook University in Cairns and knows most of northern Queensland like the back of his hand.
The ferns I’m looking for today are
interesting because some species can move from their original home in Australia
to the tiny islands in the Pacific. But some cannot. Why? Understanding what
makes them different could prove useful in making our crops more resilient to
harsh weather, or preventing weeds from spreading.
We’ve been driving for four hours before we
turn off onto a dirt road. If you haven’t been to Australia, it’s worth noting
that four hours here is unlike any four hours I’ve experienced before. The
roads are fairly empty, flat, and straight, meaning you can cover a lot of terrain. Australia is also
incredibly big and most of the time you’re travelling through unpopulated
landscapes. While it may be only four hours, your mind feels the weight of the
The dirt road begins to climb into the
mountains. We are leaving behind low scrub and big granite rocks that sit on
the flat terrain. Ashley knows where we can find the ferns I’m looking for, but
he’s never driven this road before. Instead, we’re trusting researchers who
came before us. When they explored this area, they took samples of plants that were
preserved and stored in museums and universities. By reviewing the carefully
labelled collections at these institutions, we can know which places to revisit
in hopes of finding the ferns.
Often, however, having been collected
before there was GPS, the location information on these samples is not very
precise, or the plants may no longer live there, or maybe that area got turned
into a parking lot, as happened to me in New Zealand. So, despite careful
planning, you may drive five hours one way to come up empty handed.
As we move higher up the mountain, the soil
turns redder and sparse eucalyptus forests begin to enclose us. We locate the
previous collections coordinates, an area that seems suitable for ferns to
grow. We park the truck on the side of the road and get out to look.
We comb 300 feet along the side of the road because these ferns like the edges of forest, and we find nothing. But as we trudge back to the truck, I spot one meager fern hiding behind a creeping vine! It’s high up off the road-cut and I try to scramble up but only manage to pull a muscle in my arm. Ashley is taller, so he climbs partway up a tree and manages to fetch the fern. It’s not the healthiest, only 6 inches tall for a plant that usually grows at least 12 to 14 inches. It’s also not fertile, making it less useful for research, and in pulling it out of the ground, Ashley broke one of its three leaves off. But it’s better than nothing!
Ashley excels at being a field botanist
because he is not one to give up. “We should keep looking,” he says despite the
sweat dripping down our faces.
We pile back in and continue up the road.
And who could have predicted that just around the bend we would find dozens of tall,
healthy looking ferns! There are easily fifty or so plants, each a deep green,
the tallest around 12 inches. Many others are at earlier stages of growth,
which can be very helpful for scientists in understanding how plants develop.
We take four or five plants, enough to leave a sample at the university in
Cairns and for the rest to be shipped back to the US. One sample will be kept
at Duke, and the others will be distributed amongst other museums and
universities as a type of insurance.
The long hours, the uncertainty, and the
harsh conditions become small things when you hit a jackpot like this. Plus,
being out in remote wilderness has its own soothing charm, and chance also
often allows us to spot cool animals, like the frilled lizard and wallaby we
saw on this trip.
Funding for this type of fieldwork is becoming increasingly rare, so I am grateful to the National Geographic Society for seeing the value in this work and funding my three-week expedition. I was able to cover about 400 miles of Australia from north to south, visiting twenty-four different sites, including eight parks, and ranging from lush rainforest to dry, rocky scrub. We collected fifty-five samples, including some that may be new species, and took careful notes and photographs of how these plants grow in the wild, something you can’t tell from dried-up specimens.
Knowing what species are out there and how they exist within the environment is important not only because it may provide solutions to human problems, but also because understanding what biodiversity we have can help us take better care of it in the future.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Of the few
universal human experiences, death remains the least understood. Whether we
avoid its mention or can’t stop thinking about it, whether we are terrified or
mystified by it, none of us know what death is really like. Turns out, neither
do the experts who spend every day around it.
the overarching lesson of Dr.
Robert Truog’s McGovern Lecture at Trent Semans Center for Health
Education, titled “Defining Death: Persistent Problems and Possible Solutions.”
is this year’s recipient of the McGovern Prize, an award honoring individuals
who have made outstanding contributions to the art and science of medicine. Truog is a professor of medical
ethics, anesthesiology and pediatrics and director of the center for bioethics at
Harvard Medical School. He is intimately familiar with death, not only through
his research and writings, but through his work as a pediatric intensive care
doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital. Truog is also the author of the current
national guidelines for end-of-life care in the intensive care unit.
In short, Truog
knows a lot about death. Yet certain questions about the end of life remain
elusive even to him. In his talk, he spoke about the biological, sociological,
and ethical challenges involved in drawing the boundary between life and death.
While some of these challenges have been around for as long as humans have,
certain ones are novel, brought on by technological advancements in medicine
that allow us to prolong the functioning of vital organs, mainly the brain and
“irreversible cessation of function” of these organs results in brain and
cardiac death, respectively. When both occur together, the patient is declared
biologically dead. When they don’t, such as when all brain function except for
those that support the patient’s digestive system is lost, for instance, the patient
can be legally alive without any hope of recovery of consciousness.
to Truog, it is in these moments of life after the loss of almost every brain
function that we realize “death is a social construct.” This claim likely sounds
counterintuitive, if not entirely nonsensical, as dying is the moment we have
the least control over our biology. What Dr. Truog means, however, is that as
technology continues to mend failures of biology that would have once been
fatal, our social and philosophical understanding of dying, what he calls
“person death” will increasingly separate from the end of the body’s biological
death is the moment when homeostasis, the body’s internal state of equilibrium
including body temperature, pH levels and fluid balance, fails and entropy
however, is not mere homeostasis. Dr. Truog cited Robert
Veatch, ethicist at Georgetown University, in defining person death
as the “irreversible loss of that which is essentially significant to the
nature of man.” For those patients who are kept alive by ventilators and who have
no hope of regaining consciousness, that essentially significant nature appears
to have been lost.
for loved ones, signs like spontaneous breathing, which can occur in patients
in persistent vegetative state, intuitively feel like signs of life. This
intuitive sign of life is what made Jahi
McMath’s parents refuse an Oakland California hospital’s declaration that their
daughter was dead. A ventilator kept the 13-year-old breathing, even
though she had been declared brain-dead. After much conflict, McMath’s parents
moved her to a hospital in New Jersey, one of just two states where families
can reject brain death if it does not align with their religious beliefs. In
the end, McMath had two death certificates that were five years apart.
emotional toll of such an ordeal is immense, as the media outcry around McMath
made more than clear. There are more concrete, quantifiable costs to extending
biological function beyond the end of personhood: the U.S. is facing an organ
shortage. As people are kept on life support for longer periods, it is going to
become increasingly difficult for patients who desperately need organs to find
closing, Dr. Truog reminded us that “in the spectrum between alive and dead, we
set the threshold… Death is not a binary state, but a complex social choice.”
People will likely continue to disagree about where we should set the
threshold, especially as technology develops.
However, if we want to have a thoughtful discussion that respects the rights, wishes, and values of patients, loved ones, and everybody else who will one day face death, we need to first agree that there is a choice to be made.
Guest Post by Deniz Ariturk, Science & Society graduate student
There are many things in life that are a little easier if one recruits the help of friends. As it turns out, this is also the case with scientific research.
Lilly Chiou, a senior majoring in biology, and
Daniele Armaleo, a professor in the Biology Department had a problem. Lilly
needed more funding before graduation to initiate a new direction for her
project, but traditional funding can sometimes take a year or more.
Chiou and Armaleo are interested in lichens,
low-profile organisms that you may have seen but not really noticed. Often looking
like crusty leaves stuck to rocks or to the bark of trees, they — like most
other living beings — need water to grow. But, while a rock and its resident
lichens might get wet after it rains, it’s bound to dry up.
This is where the power of lichens comes
in: they are able to dry to a crisp but still remain in a suspended state of
living, so that when water becomes available again, they resume life as usual. Few
organisms are able to accomplish such a feat, termed desiccation
Chiou and Armaleo are trying to understand how
lichens manage to survive getting dried and come out the other end with minimal
scars. Knowing this could have important implications for our food crops, which
cannot survive becoming completely parched. This knowledge is ever more
important as climate becomes warmer and more unpredictable in the future. Some farmers
may no longer be able to rely on regular seasonal rainfall.
They are using genetic tools to figure out the mechanisms behind the lichen’s desiccation tolerance[. Their first breakthrough came when they discovered that extra DNA sequences present in lichen ribosomal DNA may allow cells to survive extreme desiccation. Now they want to know how this works. They hope that by comparing RNA expression between desiccation tolerant and non-tolerant cells they can identify genes that protect against desiccation damage.
As with most things, you need money to
carry out your plans. Traditionally, scientists obtain money from federal agencies
such as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health,
or sometimes from large organizations such as the National Geographic Society,
to fund their work. But applying for money involves a heavy layer of
bureaucracy and long wait times while the grant is being reviewed (often, grants
are only reviewed once a year). But Chiou is in her last semester, so they resorted
This is not the first instance of
crowdfunded science in the Biology Department at Duke. In 2014, Fay-Wei Li and
Kathleen Pryer crowdfunded the sequencing of the
first fern genome, that of tiny Azolla.
In fact, it was Pryer who suggested crowdfunding to Armaleo.
Chiou was skeptical that this approach would work. Why would somebody spend their hard-earned money on research entirely unrelated to them? To make their sales pitch, Chiou and Armaleo had to consider the wider impact of the project, rather than the approach taken in traditional grants where the focus is on the ways in which a narrow field is being advanced.
What they were not expecting was that
fostering relationships would be important too; they were surprised to find
that the biggest source of funding was their friends. Armaleo commented on how
“having a long life of relationships with people” really shone through in this
time of need — contributions to the fund, however small, “highlight people’s
connection with you.” That network of connections paid off: with 18 days left
in the allotted time, they had reached their goal.
After their experience, they would
recommend crowdfunding as an option for other scientists. Having to create
widely understood, engaging explanations of their work, and earning the support
and encouragement of friends was a very positive experience.
“It beats writing a grant!” Armaleo said.
Guest Post by Karla Sosa, Biology graduate
From the miniscule particles underlying matter, to
vast amounts of data from the far reaches of outer space, Chris Walter, a professor
of physics at Duke, pursues research into the great mysteries of the universe,
from the infinitesimal to the infinite.
As an undergraduate at the University of California at
Santa Cruz, he thought he would become a theoretical physicist, but while
continuing his education at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech),
he found himself increasingly drawn to experimental physics, deriving knowledge
of the universe by observing its phenomena.
Neutrinos — miniscule particles emitted during radioactive decay — captured his attention, and he began work with the KamiokaNDE (Kamioka Nucleon Decay Experiment, now typically written as Kamiokande) at the Kamioka Observatory in Hida, Japan. Buried deep underground in an abandoned mine to shield the detectors from cosmic rays and submerged in water, Kamiokande offered Walter an opportunity to study a long-supposed but still unproven hypothesis: that neutrinos were massless.
Recalling one of his most striking memories from his time in the lab, he described observing and finding answers in Cherenkov light – a ‘sonic boom’ of light. Sonic booms are created by breaking the sound barrier in air. However, the speed of light changes in different media – the speed of light in water is less than the speed of light in a vacuum — and a particle accelerator could accelerate particles beyond the speed of light in water. Walter described it like a ring of light bursting out of the darkness.
In his time at the Kamioka Observatory, he was a part of groundbreaking neutrino research on the mass of neutrinos. Long thought to have been massless, Kamiokande discovered the property of neutron oscillation – that neutrinos could change from flavor to flavor, indicating that, contrary to popular belief, they had mass. Seventeen years later, in 2015, the leader of his team, Takaaki Kajita, would be co-awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, citing research from their collaboration.
Neutrinos originated from the cosmic rays in outer space, but soon another mystery from the cosmos captured Walter’s attention.
“If you died and were given the chance to know the
answer to just one question,” he said, “for me, it would be, ‘What is dark
Observations made in the 1990s, as Walter was
concluding his time at the Kamioka Observatory, found that the expansion of the
universe was accelerating. The nature of the dark energy causing this
accelerating expansion remained unknown to scientists, and it offered a new
course of study in the field of astrophysics.
Walter has recently joined the Large Synoptic Survey
Telescope (LSST) as part of a 10-year, 3D survey of the entire sky, gathering
over 20 terabytes of data nightly and detecting thousands of changes in the
night sky, observing asteroids, galaxies, supernovae, and other astronomical
phenomena. With new machine learning techniques and supercomputing methods to
process the vast quantities of data, the LSST offers incredible new
opportunities for understanding the universe.
To Walter, this is the next big step for research into
the nature of dark energy and the great questions of science.
Although the mystery of how the brain works and grows is a massive puzzle to figure out, the hope is that piece by piece, we can start to work towards a better understanding.
A person’s (or fly’s) sense of smell, or their olfactory system, is one of these pieces.
Though olfaction may not be the first part of the nervous system to cross someone’s mind when it comes to how we understand the brain, it is actually one of the most complex and diverse systems of an organism, and there’s a lot to understand within it, says Pelin Volkan, an assistant professor of biology and neurobiology and investigator in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.
Volkan and her lab have been working with fruit flies to try to unfold the many layers of the olfactory system, or the, “giant hairball,” as Volkan calls it.
Though she has been doing this work for years, she didn’t begin with an interest in neuroscience. Volkan was more interested in genetics in college and didn’t really start exploring neurobiology and development until her master’s degree at a Turkish university, when she worked with rats.
Not keen on working with rodents as model organisms but sticking with them anyway, she moved from Turkey to UNC to get her PhD, where she strayed away from neuroscience into molecular biology and development. Eventually, she realized she had a stronger passion for neuroscience, and ended up doing a postdoc at a Howard Hughes Medical Institute lab at UCLA for six years.
There, she became interested in receptors and neuronal wiring in the brain, propelling her to come to Duke and continue research on the brain’s connections and development.
One of the main reasons she loves working with the olfactory system is the many different scientific approaches that can be used to study it. Bouncing between using genetics, evolution, development, molecular biology,and other areas of study to understand the brain, her work is never static and she can take a more interdisciplinary approach to neuroscience where she is able to explore all the topics that interest her.
Volkan says she has never had to settle on just one topic, and new questions are always arising that take her in directions she didn’t expect, which is what makes her current work particularly enjoyable for her.
“You have your stories, you close your stories, but then new questions come into play,” Volkan says. “And you have no choice but to follow those questions, so you just keep on going.”